Ira – Roger Waters
Sony Classical/Columbia 96439
Liberty can’t hear you when you’re hanging from an olive tree.
Of all the so-called classic rockers, it is Roger Waters who has continually dealt with an artist’s need to mature not so much gracefully as truthfully. Waters wants internal unity and he creates primal scream music that will not accept madness, violence or terror. Pink Floyd’s last album with their de facto Commander-in-Chief, The Final Cut, was, for all intents and purposes, Waters’ first foray outside the claustrophobic shell of the British supergroup. Yes, guitarist David Gilmour contributed his usual fluid lines and Nick Mason played percussion but, this was a Roger Waters work. He wanted to talk about the death of his father in World War II and those who also lost loved ones during that horrific global conflict. Alas, he barely scratched the surface of his depression.
The Napoleanoic Waters would officially part ways with the stifling trappings of the pink beast to usher in a new era with the underrated Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, which featured a subdued Eric Clapton. Radio KAOS was a future shock concept album that dipped in and out of focus. A return to form came with Amused to Death, Waters’ bitter vitrol again centered upon the insanity of our modern world. Jeff Beck, the second of two great Yardbird guitarists to fall under the Waters’ spell, was especially energetic. Slashing and burning, he provided the proper backbone to the ferocious lyrics.
This album was a turning point for the former Floyd frontman but, no one knew it at the time. For the first time in his career, Roger Waters offered pity in a world full of wretched chaos and inevitable ruin. Yes, there were the usual Water-y tears of rage that dripped cynicism but, the cataclysmic hue echoed light, instead of dark futility. The auteur spent over a decade to deliver what he was always striving to attain: an epic, operatic work; a historic battle between the meek masses and the powers that be where justice has a chance to reign supreme. His first opera is the result and Waters, again, wears his agenda on his sleeve. Yet, this time, the badge reads Ira — translated from the French, the phrase means "It will go," and he added a further meaning, "There is Hope."
If the listener is expecting a direct link from Waters’ previous foray into opera — the towering monster called The Wall — be forewarned: this is a man now in his 60s trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t seem to learn lessons from history. About the only link from that work to Ira I could find is the final comment whispered on the coda of that great 1979 album: “banging your head against some mad bugger’s wall.” Ira effectively tears down the wall to expose an entire nation on the verge of revolution during the seminal period between 1789 and 1793.
Waters wrote the score and English lyrics for the opera based upon the libretto written by Etienne Roda-Gil and illustrated by his wife, Nadine. They were introduced to the couple by a mutual friend who Waters had known since the days of ’68 when revolution was in the air not only in France but in America and just about any country under the civilized nation’ umbrella. Nadine Roda-Gil passed away during the '90s and Waters put the work on the shelf.
The late '90s spun to a conclusion and Waters returned to the work that had started to enter a timeframe labeled "decade-in-the-making." The opera is the combined sum of the Roda-Gil manuscript, engineer Simon Rhodes, Bryn Terfel, Welsh bass baritone, Ying Huang, Shanghai soprano voice, American tenor Paul Groves, the remarkable West African Ismael Lo as a revolutionary slave and no less than three European choirs. Rick Wentworth had the daunting task of conducting the orchestra led by Gavyn Wright. Waters, himself, appears more like a literary figure, a James Joyce-type willing to spend a huge amount of time to make sure every piece in the puzzle fits. Lest the listener thinks that the man is once again a megalomaniac, Waters was asked by the Roda-Gils to write the musical score — a challenge he “enthusiastically embraced” according to the CD’s extensive notes. Furthermore, Waters only makes a brief vocal appearance during Act 3.
The story is quite simple: the government is corrupt, we’re poor so, let’s start all over. Easy to accomplish? Hardly. There are numerous characters that ebb and flow with the arc of the opera. The action takes place in a Felliniesque circus ring where the Ringmaster’ offers narration and a scenic signpost. The setting is very appropriate because the high-flying music is occasionally rousing and breathtaking. There are many moments of whispery ruminations but the net is always present in the form of Waters. Audience members become performers, performers become the audience, and royalty witnesses the metaphoric sweep of the outlandish squalor and, then, royalty, too, becomes performers. Scenes shift in and out of place, time, scope and backdrop as “the end of the world” is depicted. France was nearly broke in 1789. The coffers had been raped, pillaged and almost bankrupted beyond repair. The only solution: revolution. The inevitable result: executions, espionage, terror and the sagging dead weight of the aristocratic class. Sound a tad familiar? History’s evil legacy is repetition and the events of today are a sad reminder that time is a wheel in more ways than one.
Waters has always been the Supreme Segue Master and his ability to weave multiple storylines with many three dimensional characters wedded to a sound that combines Old World opera with modern sound effects is astounding. His surreal conquest of a genre that he had only hinted at before is also quite profound. I’m not sure how he developed such a powerful canvas with colors even I didn’t know existed but, that is a mystery I will leave to those who ponder genius for a living. In an age when rough tracks are recorded in two days, overdubs in a week, mixed in a month, mastered in a day, Waters has created a modern work that feels like it took two centuries to write and record but goes by in a fleeting moment that demands repeated listening and attention to beautiful hopeful detail.
This Republic, this great possibility, is within us all. Ira.
- Act 3, Scene 5: Liberty