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.Continue reading the main story
Ex-Pink Floyd bassist/songwriter Roger Waters hasn't had a "proper" solo album since 1992's Amused to Death, and it wasn't exactly heavily trumpeted at the time of its release. The newly liberated Waters did make a minor splash on AOR radio in 1987 with a few cuts from his second solo release Radio K.A.O.S., but the Waters-less Floyd more or less stole that year from him with the blockbusting A Momentary Lapse of Reason and its subsequent tour. By the time Waters unleashed Amused to Death, everyone's appreciation for the progressive/classical rock dinosaurs of yesteryear had been blunted by the Seattle scene's inadvertent takeover. Any Floyd love left over from these times was saved for the trio's release of The Division Bell in 1994. I'll admit that I wasn't even aware that Amused to Death existed back then because classical rock radio, at least in my region, had completely ignored it. Had I had my antennae out a little further, I would have found one solid album from a sizable ego that was small enough to correct its own mistakes. Amused to Death has aged much better than Radio K.A.O.S. and is much more musically diverse than The Final Cut (Waters's final album with Pink Floyd) and The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (Waters's first solo album outside of Pink Floyd). It's still dramatically heavy-handed, which is to be expected since this was the man who wrote a majority of The Wall. But not only has Amused to Death aged well musically, it has unfortunately aged well thematically too.
Waters derived inspiration for Amused to Death from a similarly titled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death by communications/media professor Neil Postman. In his book, Postman insisted that the epistemology of the 20th century, the manner in which we collect our information, was way out of whack. In his mind, the unfortunate developments of the photograph and the telegraph paved the way for the television age where news was packaged as entertainment. In fact, Postman argued that the best stuff on TV was junk since it made no attempt to link world events or profound thought with entertainment. These themes loomed large over Waters, ever the pacifist, who was watching Operation Desert Shield morph into Desert Storm with a detectable amount of disgust. Amused to Death makes the plea that the human race doesn't have to gather around the television with giddy glee to see if their side is winning or losing. The fact that information and entertainment have become even more enmeshed 23 years on is a troubling fact for Roger Waters, and the cover art tells you all you need to know. On Amused to Death's original cover, a monkey was sitting in its artificial habitat, looking at a TV screen showing a low-definition eyeball staring right back at it. For the 2015 rerelease of Amused to Death, the monkey has been replaced by a small child and the TV screen has ballooned to a frightening size. The eyeball is clearer and its bloodshot veins are staring right back at the child. Filmmaker and frequent Waters collaborator Sean Evans puts a fine point on it: "We never identity where the images are taken from, but you get the sense of 'Something's not right. We're doing something wrong.'"
Some of the songs on Amused to Death transition by way of someone changing channels on a TV, presumably, the monkey on the cover of the album's original artwork. The album goes in a 72-plus minute circle, starting and ending with soundbites of a man named Alfred Razzell recalling the story of trying to save the life of British soldier William Hubbard on the battlefield in World War I. Razzell explains how he had to abandon Hubbard in a "no man's land" while Waters, guitarist Jeff Beck, and the rest of the band serve up some appropriately dreary atmosphere with "The Ballad of Bill Hubbard". Towards the conclusion of the title track, saved for last, Razzell's voice returns to give some closure to the Bill Hubbard story. He claims that seeing Hubbard's name in the registry of dead soldiers helped him put the whole ordeal behind him. Like "The Ballad of Bill Hubbard", the song "Amused to Death" sounds more than just a little troubled, but the lingering memory of Hubbard is a glimpse of optimism in Waters's universe. After all, he once used the French Revolution, one of Europe's bloodiest coups, as a basis for his opera Ça Ira (translates to It'll Be Fine. There is Hope).
Roger Waters used all of his star power and musical acumen to pull together an impressive list of contributors for Amused to Death. In addition to Jeff Beck playing guitar on half the tracks, vocal cameos come flying in from Don Henley, P.P. Arnold, and Rita Coolidge. Toto guitarist Steve Lukather plays on three songs and in-demand session man John Petitucci stops by for bass on "It's a Miracle". Usual suspects from Waters's past bands return like guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and drummer Graham Broad. Co-producer Patrick Leonard gives himself a myriad of duties and composer Michael Kamen reprises the role that he played in The Wall as arranger and conductor for the National Philharmonic Orchestra. This is just a fraction of the list of names.
The overall theme of news being sold to us an entertainment covers a number of sub-themes, including capitalism run amok ("Perfect Sense"), modern warfare ("The Bravery of Being Out of Range"), the Tiananmen Square massacre ("Watching TV"), a mad scramble to interpret the wishes of the divine ("What God Wants"), and the fact that we've probably already driven ourselves into the ground without yet knowing it ("Amused to Death"). Along the way is a playful jab at potential plagiarizer Andrew Lloyd Weber, of whom Waters is pretty sure appropriated the descending chromatic scale from Pink Floyd's "Echoes" for the main theme for The Phantom of the Opera. Waters repaid the favor with this couplet:
"We cower in our shelters, with out hands over our ears
Lloyd Weber's awful stuff runs for years and years and years
An earthquake hits the theatre, but the operetta lingers
Then the piano lid comes down and breaks his fucking fingers
It's a miracle"
Weber shouldn't spend a great deal of time licking his wounds because Amused to Death is full of sharpened lyrics. "And the Germans killed the Jews / And the Jews killed the Arabs / And the Arabs killed the hostages / And this is the news / And is it any wonder / That the Monkey's confused[?]" "You hit the target / And win the game / From bars 3,000 miles away". "You don't have to be a Jew / To disapprove of murder". But there's very simple strain of lyrics that really take the cake, one that easily topples a recording studio full of English children singing "We don't need no education." I'm speaking of "What God wants, God gets / God help us all" sung to an ominous Middle Eastern melody. The enormous crowd singing sarcastic gospel for "Perfect Sense" comes close: "Can't you see/ It all makes perfect sense / Expressed in dollars and cents / Pounds shillings and pence". For the first time in a while, Roger Waters's lyrical strengths had met their musical match.
Amused to Death was and still is a powerful statement from one of rock music's most literate misanthropes. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder to believe that is slipped under everyone's radar so thoroughly. On an especially generous day, I'd go so far as to say that it could have been the Pink Floyd classic that wasn't, if only Waters and David Gilmour could have sustained their working relationship a little longer. A deluxe reissue package is from 2015 is as great a way as any to become reacquainted with the work. Just know that our epistemology is still out of whack:
"And then the alien anthropologists
Admitted they were still perplexed
But on eliminating every other reason
For our sad demise
They logged the only explanation left
This species has amused itself to death."