Jimmy Ienner Jr.
Roger Waters, late of Pink Floyd, recording “Ça Ira,” his new opera.
September 28, 2005
When Rockers Show Classical Chops
By ALLAN KOZINN
With “Ça Ira,” his new opera about the French Revolution, just released on a Sony Classical recording, Roger Waters joins a parade of rock stars who apparently harbor dreams of tuxedos and podiums. Sir Paul McCartney has written a handful of orchestral and choral works, large and small. Stewart Copeland, of the Police, beat Mr. Waters to the punch with his own opera, “Holy Blood and Crescent Moon.” Billy Joel has recorded an album’s worth of piano pieces, and Elvis Costello, with a ballet behind him, has written an opera as well.
It seems to be a part of the human condition that having established a specialty, we hanker to do something else. And far be it from me to say that we shouldn’t. But speaking as a classical music critic who also listens to lots of rock – and who wishes that more rock fans found classical music exciting as well – I must confess that I find many of these crossover incursions dispiriting.
For one thing, rock stars who become interested in classical music are bizarrely conservative. They may play the most electrifying, guitar-thrashing, edge-of-the-seat stuff with their own bands, but when they decide to write classical music, or what they think of as classical music, they reach for a quill instead of a pen. With the notable exception of Frank Zappa, whose reams of classical music reflect his fascination with Edgard Varèse and other modernists, rock musicians seem to think that the conventions of the 19th century are classical music’s current language.
Mr. Waters ought to have escaped that conservatism. His former band, Pink Floyd, was known for its almost symphonic experiments in timbre, structure and controlled dissonance. Its quasi-operatic magnum opus, “The Wall,” was thoroughly Mr. Waters’s baby.
Yet the overture to “Ça Ira” (“So It Will Be”) is couched in Brahmsian moves and sonorities, and the work rarely lurches forward. A listener soon bumps into orchestral effects that have their roots in Beethoven’s “Egmont” or, in more adventurous passages, Puccini’s “Tosca” or the Battle on the Ice from Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky.”
Maybe Mr. Waters is mistaken to call this an opera. Yes, there are operatic things about it. The vocal writing is lyrical and often attractive, even if there is little in the way of full-fledged aria writing. There is a hefty amount of choral music, and it is supported by a rich orchestral score. (Mr. Waters had some help in the orchestration from Rick Wentworth, who conducts the recording.) And there are recognizably operatic voices: the baritone Bryn Terfel, the tenor Paul Groves and the soprano Ying Huang each sing several roles.
But if you were to walk into a room in which the CD happened to be playing, you would be far less likely to say, “Hey, it’s an opera” than “Hey, it’s one of those overblown musicals that have taken over Broadway” – or words to that effect. If you were feeling charitable, you might add, “At least it’s a few steps closer to Stephen Sondheim than to Andrew Lloyd Webber” – although if you stay long enough, you’ll go back and forth on that one, possibly settling on Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for “Les Misérables.”
From a purely theatrical point of view, “Ça Ira” has a few nice touches: not least, the idea of presenting the early stages of the French Revolution as a three-ring circus, with the Ringmaster (one of Mr. Terfel’s roles) as a kind of singing history book and commentator. And it deals artfully with serious issues like tyranny, power, liberty and the difficulty of preventing revolutionary passions from being transformed into a form of terror that threatens to negate what has been gained.
No doubt there are some in classical music circles who see a sterling opportunity here, and a decade ago, I would have been one of them. In theory, rock stars who write classical works are telling their audiences that they see something special in this music, something inspiring in the old forms and in the idea of writing for orchestra and unamplified voices. And it isn’t unreasonable to expect that a new audience might be enlisted from fans who want to understand what drives their heroes, and who want to like what their heroes like.
When rock fans in the United States bought the first albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, they encountered cover versions of American rhythm-and-blues hits that white American listeners had ignored, and they quickly sought out the originals. Linda Ronstadt’s excursions into the worlds of Gilbert and Sullivan and cabaret standards in the 1980’s had a similar effect.
But rock fans barely tolerate classical music adventures by the musicians they admire. Sir Paul’s fans snapped up his “Liverpool Oratorio,” “Standing Stone” and “Working Classical” albums out of curiosity or because they were completists, but you suspect that few who weren’t already interested in classical music actually play those discs. When Sir Paul presided over a program of his orchestral music at Carnegie Hall in 1997, the place was packed with people who sought a glimpse of him but who nodded off during the performances.
These crossovers tend not to do well from the other direction, either. Classical listeners find Billy Joel’s piano tinkling embarrassing and have been brutally critical of other musicians’ efforts as well. They may find it offensive that these musicians can get their baby steps recorded by major labels while trained, experienced, eloquent composers who don’t have rock affiliations have to pass the hat.
So here’s where rock stars enamored of classical music can make a difference. When they make their first classical albums, they might consider devoting their royalties – a pittance, compared with those generated by their other work – to a fund that would support recordings by actual classical composers.
“Yeah, right,” you say, but there is a precedent of sorts. In 1989, Elliott Carter received a telephone call from Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead. Mr. Carter had no idea what the Grateful Dead was, but when he and Mr. Lesh met, the following May, Mr. Lesh brought a stack of Mr. Carter’s music, which he knew intimately.
Mr. Lesh, it turned out, wanted to underwrite a recording of Mr. Carter’s music through the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation, which has quietly given grants to other composers as well.
Now that’s doing something useful. If Mr. Lesh wrote and recorded an opera, I’d happily give it a spin.