Opéra de Montréal’s production of Another Brick in the Wall, inspired by Pink Floyd’s cult album, must be one of the most eagerly anticipated arts event of the year. Composer Julien Bilodeau was given the enormous task of turning the work by Roger Waters into an opera. He spoke to us about the process.
After graduating from the Montreal’s Conservatoire de musique, Bilodeau completed further studies in Paris and Frankfurt, and in 2006 received the Robert Flemming prize from the Canada Council for the Arts for most promising composer. Since then he has composed works commissioned by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, I Musici, Orchestre de la Francophonie, and Trio Fibonacci, among others. Turning The Wall into an opera has been the largest commission he has ever received, taking him between 18 and 20 months.
“It isn’t strictly personal where aesthetics are concerned,” he explains. “There are constraints. I’ve composed music that’s more avant-garde than this, though it has my orchestral touch. It wouldn’t have made sense to start digging around for a specific mode of expression with a subject like that, given the historic significance of The Wall.”
It’s true that writing on the basis of such a famous work has its pressure. Expectations are high on the part of Pink Floyd admirers and lovers of classical opera and new music, but the composer took a pragmatic approach. From the start, his point of reference was the opinion of Roger Waters.
“So many people have their own personal experience of the work that it was impossible to encompass them all. Everyone has their opinion about Pink Floyd, including me. I was very enthusiastic about the project because I love the music, but I would never have dreamed of doing it without the approval of Roger Waters. I sketched out some drafts and then went to see him. I had two pieces, about ten minutes in total. It was a test, sort of ‘make or break.’ He listened and didn’t say a word. I could see he was moved. Then he said, ‘You got it.’ As soon as I had his approval, I told myself that would be my point of reference. I saw him again three times after that and there was always a good feeling. He encouraged me to go on, and that gave me more freedom.”
Before writing anything, Bilodeau had to consider the structure. “It took me five or six months to come up with a rough draft, twelve to start really composing. The big challenge was having maybe just 20 pages of text to write a two-hour opera, and almost no dialogue. The lyrics are poetic, reflective. This meant that the choir was extremely important and very present. And that goes well with the text. The choir became a character; it almost became the wall.”
Audiences who see Another Brick in the Wall will certainly recognize faint shadows of the songs they know, but the opera is its own work entirely. The composer drew from the basic musical material and created something apart.
“It’s like any other composer in history who took existing music and turned it into a brand-new work, as Mahler did with Frère Jacques, or other composers who re-worked folk stories. A composer takes themes and motifs and plays with them, opening doors to lead them into different worlds, but he also knows which doors will take them back to the starting point. The peg is the original music and you can move away, up or down, but you always return to it. So there’s a link with the original and it was important to keep that, but it isn’t just an arrangement. It’s an actual opera. To serve the operatic voices, I didn’t have the choice of moving away from the rock aspect. I transformed the musical ideas and took them into the classical world.”
Among his musical influences Bilodeau counts the American minimalists and the Frenchman Pascal Dusapin. One of the oddities of the instrumentation is the presence of a synthesizer in the orchestra.
“It’s there to orchestrate. The idea isn’t so much to recognize the instrument itself as to make it produce sounds to create connections with the orchestration so that what comes out of the pit isn’t completely identifiable. It electronically tempers the sound of the orchestra to lend it particular flavours, but these effects are used sparingly. I also use many sounds on the original album that were accessible, for example cars, babies, telephones, voices. I incorporate them because they fit the story. The orchestration is influenced by the sonorousness of rock, like the effects of the off-beat and reverberation, but which are written.”
Pink, the main part, is played by baritone Étienne Dupuis. The cast includes Jean-Michel Richer (the father), France Bellemare (the mother), Caroline Bleau (the wife), Stéphanie Pothier (Vera Lynn), Dominic Lorange (the teacher), Marcel Beaulieu (the judge/doctor), and Cairan Ryan (the prosecutor). Alain Trudel will conduct the Orchestre Métropolitain. Production design is by Dominic Champagne.
Translation: Cecilia Grayson
March 11 to 27, salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. www.operademontreal.com