This year will mark half a century since The Who recorded the world’s first “rock opera,” Tommy, a work that dared to mix the drama and scope of a Verdi or Bizet classic with the bashing, wailing world of Hendrix and Clapton.
Last year, composer Julien Bilodeau dared to reverse that process. He took another “rock opera” touchstone, Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall, and flushed away everything that conformed to the first half of that hybrid. Bilodeau’s take on The Wall, which he retitled Another Brick in the Wall for a production originally created for Montreal’s Place des Arts in 2017, banished all the electric guitars and drums that fired the original, and then, for good measure, threw away most of the foundational music that had been composed by Pink Floyd’s leader, Roger Waters, along with band guitarist David Gilmour. In their stead, Bilodeau created a largely original score that studiously conformed to the tenants of pure opera. “One thing I knew for sure,” the composer told me at the time. “This would create a reaction.”
Did it ever, selling out the whole run in Montreal and inspiring audience ovations along the way, while, at the same time, drawing the ire of certain critics and rock fundamentalists. Now, Bilodeau has evolved his original version to re-erect Another Brick in the Wall for Cincinnati Opera for its U.S. premiere. “It’s going to be better in Cincinnati because we had the time to take two steps back and improve it,” Bilodeau told me a few weeks ago. “It’s tighter, and more focused.”
The essential elements from the Montreal version, however, remain. They include the bold use of a 70-piece orchestra, a 46-member chorus, and eight solo singers. It’s a decidedly maximalist presentation, enhanced by colossal video projections flashing images that move from dark to darker. “It’s not a comedy,” Bilodeau deadpanned about the piece.
In fact, Pink Floyd’s The Wall has always been a difficult and remote work, making its sales of over 23 million copies worldwide a highly improbable feat. Its lead character is an entitled, paranoid rock star who has grown bitter and contemptuous of his own audience. The character was inspired by a mental breakdown suffered by Roger Waters while on tour with his band in the late ’70s. In the many incarnations Waters has overseen since, the piece has expanded its vision, and its politics, to make increasingly convincing statements on war, fascism, alienation, conformity, and human frailty. Bilodeau’s new version, created with Waters’s full blessing, widens the lens even further, drawing parallels to the current, contentious discussion of “walls” in the Trump era.
Bilodeau, a celebrated Canadian classical composer, who was 5 years old when The Wall was released, first discovered the album in his father’s record collection. He also came to love the controversial 1982 film version of the album, feverishly directed by Alan Parker. Bilodeau’s take, which he began working on in 2015, used the libretto from Waters’s original, though he, along with Another Brick director Dominic Champagne, expanded its length and opened it up. They assigned parts that were initially voiced by the lead character of Pink to a range of characters, including his mother, father, and wife. Bilodeau also fully integrated the chorus, creating a sustained call and response with the lead character, in the process giving each singer life as a war widow, refugee, or fan.
In place of rock’s rhythms, or pop’s easy hooks, Another Brick in the Wall drew inspiration from minimalist composers like Philip Glass, as well as the jazz harmonies of Keith Jarett, and the ambient textures of late Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright. Together, it has yielded an entirely fresh work, elevating music known to millions with a new grandeur.
Jim Farber, who served as Chief Music Critic of the New York Daily News for 25 years, now contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsday, and many other outlets. He is a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Criticism.