Friday, 30 November 2007

Occasional Diversion: Roger Waters' Opera Ca Ira

Roger Waters was the creative genius of the phenomenally successful rock group Pink Floyd, which has managed the incredible feat of posting top 10 albums in each decade since the 1960s.[1] In 1984, he put out his first solo album, and now in 2006 he has succeeded in writing and releasing an epic opera on the French Revolution, called Ça Ira: There Is Hope.

This is not a rock opera, and is entirely devoid of those elements which characterize rock music. Waters doesn't sing on it, but such credentialed opera vocalists as Bryn Terfel play leading characters. The opera has been performed at significant operatic venues.

Here are some seasoned reflections, now that I've owned the CD for more than a year and have become intimately acquainted with it.

First, once you know the music, it sticks to your head moreso than any other item in the Floyd-Waters repertoire. I put the opera away for a few months, then recently played it, with the result being that the music is ominously present in my mind constantly, unavoidably.

Second, the poetry is highly Watersian. The poetry is worthy of publication by itself. There are many, many memorable lines, full of irony, freshness, and explosiveness. If you memorize these lines, you'll never lack for an a propos comment.

Third, recurring motifs intertwine and hold this massive work together, to the delight of the audience.

Fourth, great special effects aboud, of course, meeting and exceeding Floyd fans' high expectations.

Fifth, an amazing melting pot of irony, horror, and levity is achieved through the mocking innocence of young voices (children's), for example, "But we are not rats. We're not even human!"

Sixth, the opera achieves a great psychological impact. Much of the music requires repeated listening to catch the lyrics (typical of operatic voices, I think). Consequently, you get to know the music before the text gets processed in your minds. Thus, for example, in the song "Sugar, Silver, Indigo," you're surfing an exhilarating musical wave when finally the words crash down on you that the insatiable desire for the three imports "...make even the wisest man an idiot," which can't help but produce a snicker and a nodding affirmation. There is a complete libretto included with the cd, facilitating understanding of words and scenes.

One of the great keys to Waters' success is how he typically weaves the album together so that it has perfect segues with an exponentiating psychological impact. Does this album qualify? Much of it holds together, but perhaps not perfectly like Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and Amused To Death. Maybe after becoming more thoroughly acquainted with the music, some of the drag in sections will become less so.

It seems to me that Waters has a conceptual problem which keeps us from being endeared to the warm fuzzies of the French Revolution. The Revolution was not a glorious thing. Yes, we love liberty, but such a virtue seems to get lost in the messiness and vacillations of the French Revolution. A more obvious venue for an opera on glorious liberty would have been the American Revolution. But, given Waters' obvious disdain for America, I don't suppose this would have been an appealing theme to our composer!

The listener really doesn't know what to think about poor King Louis. The music seems to make us want to grieve over his death, but we have a hard time doing so logically, since he was so flawed. We are conflicted. The opera works toward a climax with the death of King Louis, and the listener somehow expects a conclusion here. But then we go on for some time, sometimes with great affectation. But instead of the expected epilogue after the King's execution, we forge on to new territory.

One of the amazing psychological effects produced by this album is how increasingly terrible the guillotine becomes. The first few times you hear the sound effect, you say, "Wow, that's cool." But after you get to know the music, you begin to dread the moment of the shrill sound of the falling of the blade. This dread reaches its apex in the song, "We want to get rid of the guillotine" in which we are treated to a parade of executions. Really and truly, Waters reproduces the dread of the guillotine within the listeners, almost as if we had been there. The end result is that this album is not one of those albums you would care to listen to for the sheer fun of it. You won't be putting this cd into your player without thinking twice about whether you're ready for it.

Musical reference to earlier albums is almost nil. Of course, there are points here and there where the listener delightfully says, "That sounds Floydian" or "that sounds Watersian." But such moments are rather subtle, and normally do not constitute a motif referral. The one major exception is the appropriation of "As we lie here in the dark, nothing interferes, its obvious..." from Pros and Cons for the lyrics of Cousin Bourbon of Spain. That tune is powerful in any context.

Ultimately, I can't help but think this opera album really is very important musically and lyrically. I would recommend to most anyone to buy it.


kangeroodort said...

Very interesting post. I used to be a huge Floyd fan, and loved Waters' solo albums. I haven't listened to him much in the last few yaers because I find his music to be less than spiritually edifying or motivating.

I noticed that you are Arminian in theology, and so I wondered what you thought about Waters' songs "What God Wants" on the Amused to Death CD? I find them to be rather Calvinistic in theology. I was thinking of doing a post on them in that light in the near furture.

I would be interested in your thoughts.

God Bless,

James M Leonard said...

Thanks, Kangeroodort.

For the lyrics of all three parts of "What God Wants" from Waters' album Amused to Death (yes, a musical exposition of Neil Postman's thesis), surf through the transcripts of the album here:

(The text contains some unfortunate expletives.)

Exegesis, whether biblical or Watersian, is all about determining the author's original intention. So we must ask, did Waters intend these lyrics to reflect a Calvinistic determinism, or some other sort of theistic determinism?

No, almost certainly not. One would seek in vain to find any hint of a sustained determinism or even fatalism in Waters. Waters' biting sarcasm and bitter invective is all about making the right choices, and assumes that humans are free to do so. (Cf. The Tide Is Turning or Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking [title song] to cite two examples out of many.)

So, if Waters is not advocating a Calvinist determinism, what do his lyrics mean which state that whatever God wants, God gets? God help us all!

I think, that in this album, there are two possibilities. First, when Waters says these things, he is referring to people who claim to speak for God. In saying, for example, "God wants semtex," Waters must be referring to terrorists who think that they're doing something for God by blowing up innocent civilians. See further: God wants crusades, God wants jihad.

The other possibility is that humans set themselves up as God. So, when Waters says God wants a particular thing, he's really saying that it is humans who want it.

But, even more telling is that the very notion that God might [i]want[/i] or [i]have wants[/i] or become more complete if his wants were fulfilled would certainly be an impossibility for the God of Jean Calvin. This sort of thing sounds more like the God of Open Theism. But again, I don't think this is Waters' intention.

kangeroodort said...


Thanks for the thoughtful assessment. I fear that I did not express myself very well. I did not believe that Waters' necessarily had Calvinism in mind while writing his song. I only meant that the thoughts expressed in the song line up very well with Calvinist theology.

I think you are probably right when you say That Waters' was pointing out that we often justify our behavior in the name of God and suppose that we can easily speak for God.

I grew up in a Christian home, but turned away from the faith to explore the freedom of sin in my teenage years. Even during this time of rebellion the lyrics to Waters' songs [What God Wants] made me uncomfortable. They seemed blasphemous to me. I did not want God controlling my life at that time, but I was not at a point of being comfortable with blaspheme, etc.

I was recently reflecting on his lyrics and began to think that if I were a Calvinist I should be able to give a hearty "Amen" to what Waters' wrote, even though he probably never intended to convey Calvinistic theology.

I appreciate your insight. Maybe I can enjoy these songs a little more now that I better understand Waters' intentions. My favorite track, by far, is "Amused to Death", which, of course, also contains a powerful message with the emotion that only Waters can deliver.

Maybe if I come into some money I will pick up the "Opera"

Thanks and God Bless,

James M. Leonard said...

Yes, on the surface, the lyrics to "What God Wants" is blasphemous, but on further thought, given a sympathetic reading, the lyrics are probably true enough--when properly interpreted.

It is very much like "We Don't Need No Education;" Waters is not against education per se, but against a sort of education which teaches mere mathematical formulae without teaching people life--or against an educational approach which feeds children into a meat grinder to produce hamburger.