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"I wrote an e-mail to Dave afterwards, ‘How extraordinary to be so warmly feted by a press that’s always been so unpleasant and negative in the past’."

The Times - Britain

September 04, 2005

Roger Waters Interview: Talking Liberties

September 04, 2005

About opera Ca Ira, the anti-hunting bill and that Pink Floyd reunion.

Roger Waters tells Paul Sexton about his French revolution opera, Ca Ira, the anti-hunting bill and that Pink Floyd reunion

I am riding the Hampton Jitney, the coach that takes the seriously rich of New York to their breathtakingly upmarket homes in the resort of the Hamptons. In Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw says it’s “just like the bus to summer camp. Only instead of singing songs, everyone ignores each other and talks on their cellphones”. The woman in the seat in front is perusing Forbes magazine. That certainly fits my imagined profile of the residents of the millionaires’ playground where I am heading to meet Roger Waters.

That is not the famously moody Roger Waters, but the one who has been seen out lately, barely recognised by even his most devout fans. The one who spent Pink Floyd’s unimaginable reunion at Live 8 grinning his head off and putting his arms around his erstwhile nemesis, David Gilmour. The one now presenting himself as an operatic composer.

Before Hyde Park, Waters was in danger of being remembered less as the trenchant visionary of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs than as the sore, sour loser who went into a 20-year sulk after leaving the group in 1983. But I learnt on a previous meeting with him to cast out first impressions. Waters’s brooding lack of effusiveness is often mistaken for studied arrogance. To borrow a Spike Milligan phrase, people take an instant dislike to him to save time. But five years ago, during an interview at his pile in Hampshire, Waters’s initial reticence was gradually upgraded to beneficence and an invitation to his studio, where he played me work then in progress: the opera he has now completed, Ca Ira.

This time, I am paying a house call in the afterglow of his former band’s lauded reconvening, and on the completion of a work with which he has wrestled since 1989. A sign in the driveway of the waterside mansion doesn’t quite say “tradesmen’s entrance”, but it directs visitors to the back door, where a bijou sports car sits in the garage. Waters eventually appears from the tennis court. “There you are,” he says, with no hint of a smile. He will be 61 this week, and appears radiantly healthy. Even his sweat looks elegant.

After a shower, he re-emerges in black T-shirt and jeans, a glass of white wine in hand, to direct us onto the porch. The water glistens in the late-afternoon sun and a rabbit gambols across the lawn. Waters lives in the Hamptons because, basically, he can — and because he had simply had enough of England.

“Jack [his son] lives in London, so I go back every three weeks or so to see him,” he says. “But I’ve become disenchanted with the political and philosophical atmosphere in England. It’s so mealy-mouthed. I’m lucky enough to have the freedom to live where I want because I’ve made a few quid. The anti-hunting bill was enough for me to leave England.

“I did what I could, I did a concert and one or two articles, but it made me feel ashamed to be English. I was in Hyde Park for both the Countryside Alliance marches. There were hundreds of thousands of us there,” he goes on, his voice growing louder. “Good, honest English people. That’s one of the most divisive pieces of legislation we’ve ever had in Great Britain. It was disgusting.” I think of suggesting that he forms a supergroup with Otis Ferry, but I am a long way from home to be chucked out.

Ca Ira is Waters’s characteristically grand-scale illustration of the French revolution, a three-act opera on two CDs, in which the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel plays three roles, including Louis Capet, the King of France. The soprano Ying Huang appears as Marie Antoinette and the American tenor Paul Groves and the Senegalese star Ismael Lo also take part. Waters says he knew little about the subject before the French songwriter Etienne Roda-Gil brought him a libretto 16 years ago.

It was another eight years before he committed to an English translation of the piece, which is proudly at the accessible end of the operatic scale, with titles such as I Want to Be King and France in Disarray. There is also a young choir, and you half expect them to say, at any moment, that they don’t need no “educayshun”.

He is sanguine about the potential media reaction. “The knives are bound to come out,” he says. “People defend their own little islands of culture with great panache. I’d much rather people just accept that it’s a genuine piece of work. It’s not in any way pretentious. I’m really looking forward to Rome, and seeing what the vibe is in the room.”

Waters is referring to the live performance of Ca Ira he is planning in Italy in November, which he hopes may lead to a series of concerts in America next spring. “I’ll use Nadine Roda-Gil’s drawings and paintings, and probably bits of old movies as well. It could be good fun. There are a few memorable tunes — actually, more than a few. There’s a lot of melody, so hopefully it’ll strike a chord somewhere.”

Waters is a stimulating and informed conversationalist, as you might expect of someone whose mother was a political activist in Cambridge, and he segues from the operatic endeavour to the present day. “If you look upon the France of that time as a microcosm of what’s going on globally now, the parallels are extraordinarily powerful. There, they had God, then the king, who had divine right, directly connected to God, then under him the clergy and the nobility, then everybody else.

That’s a little bit like the situation we have right now. You could get specific and narrow it down, so you’ve got the Bush administration and the neocons and their acolytes, and a sort of western middle class who’ve got TV sets, which is a very small percentage of the world, then there’s everyone else and they’ve got f*** all.

“At the end of the opera, I say, ‘Abide by the constitution.’ But we can’t bring ourselves to implement the American constitution, which is a fantastic document. I wonder whether it’ll ever happen,” he muses. “Or do you think the neocons will win? I’d be prepared to give up my gas-guzzler. Well, one of them, anyway.”

For all the rapid dispersal of attention to Live 8’s Make Poverty History campaign in the wake of the London bombings, Waters is still proud of his part in what the July 2 shows helped achieve. “It made [political leaders] make the right noises before the G8 summit, and it made them make the right decisions. I think Geldof truly had an effect, and I take my hat off to him for doing it.”

Waters has nixed all conjecture of a Floyd tour, but tells me in amiable detail about the lead-up to the reunion. Geldof first asked Gilmour, but got a no, so then approached the drummer, Nick Mason — by everyone’s account the affable one, and always Waters’s closest ally in the group. Mason e-mailed Waters, who talked to Geldof and then, in a moment of entente cordiale to rival the end of the cold war, called Gilmour and had “a very cordial conversation”. Twenty-four hours later, Gilmour called Waters and said: “Okay, let’s do it.”

The preparation for the concert, says Waters, was “like freewheeling downhill with no hands. Easy, but tinged with the exhilaration of potential disaster”. After the dress rehearsal, he and his fiancée, Laurie, went to dinner with Gilmour, his wife, Polly, and Mason and his wife, Nettie. Such socialising was an achievement to shame the UN.

Several weeks later, Waters is still glowing at the memories. So much so that, even amid the denials, and even with Gilmour making a solo album, one wonders if that was the final performance by Pink Floyd. “It was moving,” says Waters of the quartet’s rapprochement in front of hundreds of millions. “I wrote an e-mail to Dave afterwards. I’d just seen a bunch of press cuttings, and I think I said, ‘How extraordinary to be so warmly feted by a press that’s always been so unpleasant and negative in the past.’

“I put, ‘Maybe they now see us a bit like the Queen Mum. We can be revered because we can’t possibly threaten anybody, wandering around with our bandaged legs.’

“People obviously love the work, so to be able to see the four of us, who were together when that bit of the work was done, obviously moved a lot of people. It was great to bask in the warmth of that affection.”

Ca Ira is released by Sony BMG on September 26

© The Times 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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