“In my experience, attempts to transmogrify rock ‘n’ roll material to anything symphonic or operatic are unmitigated disasters always” scoffed Roger Waters, bassist and principal songwriter of Pink Floyd, when initially presented with a proposal to adapt his former band’s 1979 album The Wall as an opera. Undeterred, Pierre Dufour – then general director of the Opéra de Montréal – and his creative team, including composer Julien Bilodeau and director Dominic Champagne, duly managed to convince Waters of the project’s merits. The end result was Another Brick in the Wall, an opera which preserves all of Waters’ original texts but otherwise takes a life of its own independent of the album. Opening in Montreal during March 2017, the Cincinnati Opera was involved early on as a co-producer, and gave the American première in a run of five performances beginning last weekend.

Nathan Keoughan (Pink) and James Eder (The Judge) © Philip Groshong
Nathan Keoughan (Pink) and James Eder (The Judge)
© Philip Groshong

Another Brick in the Wall is another entry in the timeless album’s long list of incarnations – and a work that centrally concerns the walls which divide proved particularly relevant to revisit given the current political patois. Bilodeau's conception was neither a rock opera nor a straightforward transcription; citing Wagner, Debussy and Brahms and his primary influences, his score calls for eight soloists, choir and large orchestra, presenting the album's lyrics in a striking new light. Musically, it thus bore as little resemblance to the album as Verdi's Requiem does to Mozart's, although there were some passing references to the contours and progressions of the original songs – perhaps analogous to the way in which Philip Glass wove the music of David Bowie into his First and Fourth symphonies (as well as the upcoming Twelfth). Bilodeau impressed the most in his ability to facilitate the transition from anthem to aria, and rock opera to grand opera.

Nathan Keoughan (Pink) and groupies © Philip Groshong
Nathan Keoughan (Pink) and groupies
© Philip Groshong

This was thus a lofty attempt to appeal to both opera and rock fans alike – and a successful one, if the mix of audience members clad in dressy attire and those in Dark Side of the Moon T-shirts was any indication. The production itself almost rivaled a bona fide Pink Floyd show in terms of visual spectacle; sprawling LED screens served as a canvas for video imagery designed by Johnny Ranger, and the stage bustled with elaborate costumes and sets packed with supernumeraries. Nonetheless, this wasn’t enough to distract from the unevenness of the score; while not without moments of brilliance, it was all too often uninspired and repetitive, missing the dramatic sweep of the album. Waters is easily one of rock’s finest lyricists, yet his words seemed to lose their eloquence in an operatic context, as if some essential element got lost in translation to music that lacked the caustic bite of the text.

The work began with rumbling in the timpani in a nod to Brahms’ First Symphony, and the curtain opened to depict a chaotic scene at a concert with a disillusioned rock star named Pink in the spotlight. Nathan Keoughan, who served as the role’s understudy during the Montreal performances, was a commanding presence in this marathon leading role, singing for nearly the opera’s duration. The opening “In the Flesh?” was delivered as a recitative, with the full force of Keoughan’s baritone evident shortly thereafter – and in “Don’t Leave Me Now” stretching well into the tenor range. While the album was vocally dominated by Waters, Bilodeau redistributed portions of the text to render the other roles meatier, for instance, the plaintive “Mother” was construed as a duet between Pink and his mother, the latter given by a dulcet France Bellemare.

Nathan Keoughan (Pink) and Caroline Bleau (his Wife) © Philip Groshong
Nathan Keoughan (Pink) and Caroline Bleau (his Wife)
© Philip Groshong

Caroline Bleau was convincing in the role of The Wife, particularly in the strained exchange with Pink during “One of My Turns”, buttressed by a stirring brass chorale. “The Trial”, the work’s climactic penultimate selection, brought forth a nightmarish cast of characters including an imposing Michael Young as The Prosecutor, and musically it was little changed from the album, already operatic scope. The chorus had a major role as well, sometimes furthering the plot, elsewhere fleshing out the texture, for instance, the wordless vocalizations in “Empty Spaces” brought to mind the ominous ostinato of the original. In addition, the chorus was given the last word via the a cappella “Outside the Wall” for a conclusion as touching as it was unassuming.

Alain Trudel led the Cincinnati Symphony in a tight, well-rehearsed performance, and the orchestra was commendable in preparing the score with the same loving attention to detail as a standard repertoire work. The Cincinnati Opera is to be lauded for its commitment to such an ambitious project, yet I still remained unconvinced of the value of morphing rock into opera. An impressive performance to be sure, but at the end of the day, Pink Floyd and Roger Waters did it better.