Roger Waters on 'Interesting, Moving' 'The Wall' Opera

As production opens in Montreal, former Pink Floyd singer-songwriter explains why iconic album works as classical music

Roger Waters discusses how Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' became an opera and why he finds the new version moving. Credit: Adam Berry/Getty

Roger Waters was originally reluctant to let The Wall, his great rock opera, become a standard classical opera. When Pierre Dufour, then the general director of Opéra de Montréal, wrote the former Pink Floyd singer and songwriter a letter saying he had the idea to do so, Waters' response was swift and terse. "I wrote him a rather pompous letter, saying, 'In my experience, attempts to transmogrify rock & roll material into anything symphonic or operatic are an unmitigated disaster, always,'" he says with a broad smile. "I think it's a terrible idea."

Waters is now speaking with Rolling Stone in a conference room, backstage at the Opéra de Montréal, the day before Another Brick in the Wall: L'Opéra's world-premiere performance last Saturday. Things have changed: The company's stage director, Dominic Champagne, was, in Waters' words, "like a dog with a bone," and wrote a letter persuading him to consider it; the production is now scheduled to run through March 27th. As the bassist/songwriter, 73, explains the genesis of the opera, which will get a U.S. run in Cincinnati next year, he says it took little convincing when he finally heard the music composer Julien Bilodeau wrote for it.

"I asked him to do MIDI demos of 'Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2' and 'Comfortably Numb,' and they were actually really interesting – but more than interesting, moving," Waters says. "You can hear the attachment to the original work, but barely in some places. It's very much his work, and I just had to throw my hands up and go, 'You know what? You convinced me. Go for it.'"

Last spring, he met with the team of creators in the conference room he's in now and set them free with it. "I told them what I thought about everything and said, 'I don't want to have anything to do with it – I'm hands off,'" he says. "It would be ridiculous for me to even think about micromanaging anything. Partly because I'm a bit of a controlling person and partly because they were doing such a good job, I thought. I can't wait to see it."

The next night, after the premiere, the opera got a standing ovation, and the audience cheered even louder when Waters came out to take a bow. It was a full-circle moment for Waters since, incidentally, the seed for The Wall was planted in Montreal on Pink Floyd's Animals tour in 1977 when his disdain for playing stadiums led him to lash out at a fan, reportedly spitting on him. His discomfiture led him to reflect on his life, making a path for the landmark 1979 double album. Here, he reflects on how things have changed.

Do you see this appealing more to Pink Floyd fans or operagoers?
Definitely more to operagoers.

The music is very straight opera.
It's real, and it's quite modern but also harmonic. Some modern works are atonal, and I have trouble being moved by that. But this sounds accessible.

What was it about the music that you found so moving?
I just heard some of it downstairs, and when you get 48 people in a chorus and two or three soloists, and a 70-piece symphony orchestra all woven together with what we know opera is, you're ahead of the game, because that is a very moving form, as anybody who likes opera will agree. But [Julien's] stuff, specifically ... I don't know. Why do some composers move you and others don't? Why am I more moved by Puccini than by [Benjamin] Britten? With Puccini, it's like sticking a dagger in your heart. And with Julien, it's just moving. I can't explain to you technically why that is [pauses].

Spinal Tap could. "D-minor is the saddest key" and all that [laughs].

Right. You said you wanted to be hands-off with this production. Considering you were very unhappy with what director Alan Parker came up with for the movie The Wall, did you have any trepidation about giving them free rein?
No, since I was here last April and I'd seen all the drawings and designs. And all of Dominic's ideas about using video, the set and what the character would do looked great. All I've seen so far is the end of the opera, with 56 people – or maybe more, I don't know – standing on the stage, singing my words and music for "Outside the Wall," a cappella. The orchestra stops and that's the end of the show. And actually, that was my idea. It's how I do it [at The Wall concerts].

Did your mother play a lot of opera when you were growing up? Is that how you got into it?
I honestly can't remember how I got into it. There was never any music of any kind in my house, when I was growing up. We had Saturday-night theater and the news on the radio. They would broadcast a play every Saturday night and we would sit around and listen, and then my brother and I would listen to kid stuff on the radio, but again, it was theater: Journey Into Space.

Since you've written an opera of your own, 2005's Ça Ira, what opera do you like?
I like the Italians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I like the popular stuff: Puccini, Donizetti, Verdi and those big, dramatic, popular operas from the golden age. But I also have trouble sitting through them, because they're so fucking long, like a lot of Wagner.

Certainly, Wagner's "Ring Cycle."
Right. The music is amazing, but I just nod off a bit after five or six hours. There's something about the training of the voice, though, that's kind of stunning.

Your productions of The Wall, both with Pink Floyd and as a solo artist, can be overwhelming and intimidating for audiences. Opera can be larger-than-life, too. Do you see that coming through in this production?
No, I don't think so. You may be right about my productions of it, and maybe even the original production in '79. But, as you know, rock & roll shows are really loud, overwhelming in their attack on the aural senses. That's why people like me in the arena of rock are all so profoundly deaf.

Everyone I know who's worked in opera isn't like that. It's not that loud. Even a tenor singing full blast is not that loud, and you're a long way away, so they tend to enhance it only slightly, even in opera houses. So the melody and the balance between the voices and the orchestra is much more important than it is in rock & roll, where everybody's singing into a microphone that's blisteringly loud most of the time.

The original concept for The Wall was born from the frustration you felt while performing for stadium audiences. You obviously were performing The Wall again at stadiums a few years ago. When did you get over your reticence about playing to giant crowds?
I think it has to do with performing, getting over a feeling of antipathy towards audiences in general, or getting over a fear of audiences. I noticed that moment when I did a gig that Don Henley asked me to do in 1992, for the Walden Woods Project that he was raising money for, in the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.

When did that feeling of alienation go away?
That's a very good point. Interestingly enough, I think this brings us back to the new [solo] album [Is This the Life We Really Want?]. As we reject Trumpism and stop building walls and lobbing bombs over them at brown people, we discover the transcendental nature of love, whether it's a romantic love for a woman or a man or for somebody else, or an experience of an attachment to empathy that is so powerful that normally we only experience in a romantic arena. It's the coup de foudre, it's lightning struck by the thunderbolt, and if we're lucky, it opens us up to the idea that we can feel empathy for all others. This is something that Trump will never experience. He's clearly beyond it. And most sociopaths are. It's actually the lack of empathy that allows them to pursue the brutal, callous, loveless course that they do.

So, yeah, I think at some point in my life, I had my moment on the road to Damascus. I'm not sure quite what it was or where it was, but without those moments, we remain free of empathy, and in consequence we are entirely content to build walls and then lob bombs over them.

I was curious about your personal journey, because the Pink character on the album came to that realization through drugs and isolation, and that is not your story.
No [laughs]. Well, obviously I had Syd [Barrett] to lean on a bit. And also you see the temptation that is put in the way of human beings without empathy – they have nothing really to live for but to immure themselves behind an addiction in order to induce the comfortable numbness that I describe in the song. It's kind of 101 human psychology.

Right, but "Comfortably Numb" was inspired by a real event, when a doctor gave you a shot of something to get you onstage on the 1977 tour when you had collapsed backstage of stomach cramps.
Well, that's true. That was actually a chemical thing, like being given an elephant tranquilizer to get onstage. Or whatever it was. No, I didn't do those.

Never again.
No, never again [laughs].

You got the idea for The Wall 40 years ago here in Montreal when you had an altercation with a concertgoer. Have you ever heard from the man you singled out?
No, I never heard from the "spat-upon," whoever he was. He feels almost like a figment now. It's almost like something that was made up for a screenplay or something. It's bizarre and I have no physical memory of it, or whether there was chain-link fencing or how high the stage was or what was going on. I have no idea. But I know it happened [pauses]. I'm pretty sure it happened [smiles].