Are "Rock Operas" really operas?
December 22, 2011 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Are "Rock Operas" really operas?

An opera is a drama in which all dialogue and plot development is sung. Based on that simple definition, a Rock Opera is an opera.

But, Do Rock Operas share any key artistic elements with the great Operas? Classical operas must have some standard artistic elements, common to them all?
Do those elements exist in Rock Operas too?

Most Rock Operas have dis-jointed (post-modern?) plots. Are they even dramas?

Just as a point of reference, some of the great Rock Operas (IMO) would be:
The Wall - by Pink Floyd
Tommy - by The Who
Quadrophenia - by The Who

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - by David Bowie
Joe's Garage - by Frank Zappa
posted by Flood to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think the answers to all of your questions are no. Also, you forgot Jesus Christ Superstar (1970 recording, with Murray Head), which is the answer to the "are they even dramas" question.
posted by facetious at 6:28 PM on December 22, 2011

I think prog rock and rock opera have a lot in common. While I would not count most of the music you listed as being Rock Opera per se, Rick Wakeman's albums listed below are classified as prog rock but fit more into the rock opera genre.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

I highly recommend them.
posted by Kerasia at 6:57 PM on December 22, 2011

I agree with the world famous - if it just an album, it is not an opera, whether rock or just regular. But that's just my opinion.

Rent is one of musicals often deemed a rock opera. It is a modern adaptation of La Boheme, a Puccini opera. It is sung through, and it is a drama with a coherent narrative.

However, something like Moulin Rouge, which is even more loosely adapted from la boheme (with elements of la traviata, possibly?), could never be argued to be an opera, despite the drama and coherent narrative, but it is not sung through by any stretch of the imagination.

You seem to be asking what makes an opera an opera - from what I recall of my college opera class, all it needs is like you said: a libretto that is completely sung through, a dramatic narrative. IIRC (and I may be wrong, it has been awhile), there are multiple techniques that different composers/librettists use based upon location, time, and whatever was in style at the time. A standard opera consists of three or four primary things: recitative (which is the dialogue-y singing), arias (big solo outpourings of emotion), duets & trios & quartets, and the ever popular chorus to fill time for costume changes, give background setting, or otherwise explain.

If you can have comic opera and serious opera and operettas and singspiel, I don't see why you can have rock operas as well.

Another thought: Les Miserables is a drama that is sung through, but it is not rock music at all - would you call that an opera? If you think about it, I think you could easily argue that it is.

A bigger issue is probably the distinction between a musical and an opera, but I don't know where you draw the line, or if some things (like Les Mis & Rent & Phantom of the Opera & Jesus Christ Superstar) can be both operas and musicals. I'm fairly sure that Porgy & Bess from the 1920s (I think?) was considered both an opera and a musical.
posted by firei at 7:09 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure Pete Townshend coined the term "rock opera" to refer to "Tommy" and it's predecessor, the "mini-opera" "A Quick One While He's Away."

However, he also admitted writing plots was never his strong point. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to discern the plot of the story of "Tommy" from listening to the album. I think Townshend himself didn't completely think it through until the movie. And the movie is clearly a musical - people who talk normally, but occasionally break into song - not an opera.

So the main difference for me is that most rock operas kind of imply a story, rather than explicitly telling one. But I don't think there's a hard and fast line to be drawn here.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:16 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just as a historical thing, I think the reason Townshend coined the term was that he wanted to refer to the practice of writing a rock album with characters and a storyline (even if the story was a bit hazy). There had been concept albums with a theme before, but you can't really say Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds had characters or a story that ran through all the tracks. There was "A Teenage Opera" in 1966, which preceded and influenced Townshend, but it wasn't and isn't very well known.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:24 PM on December 22, 2011

There's no such thing as a rock opera, because "rock opera" is an oxymoron. If you have a musical theatrical performance using rock music, like Rent, it's a "musical" or "musical theatre," not an "opera." An opera is based on classical music — you know, Mozart, Verdi, etc. So anything with pop or jazz or rock music is not an opera. As others have said, there is no opera if it's not staged, but not everything on stage with music is an opera. It's fine to use the term "rock opera" to refer to something like Tommy, but this does not literally refer to an opera that uses rock music (which, again, is impossible by definition); it's just a cute juxtaposition of two words that one wouldn't expect to find together. "Rock opera" is a handy way to express the fact that "this is something bigger and more dramatic than normal rock music."
posted by John Cohen at 7:27 PM on December 22, 2011

As always, Wikipedia has a treasure trove of info on this. To wit:

"In October 1967 the British group Nirvana (not to be confused with the later American band of the same name) released The Story of Simon Simopath, what might be the first entire album by a rock band to comprise a single story."
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:29 PM on December 22, 2011

The answer would be the same as "Is this ______ art?" It is all subjective. By definition it is opera as you stated. You can say things like opera must not in the rock genre (of course defining "rock" is nearly as difficult as defining "art) but that is just an opinion. One that seems rather snobby to me.
posted by 2manyusernames at 7:44 PM on December 22, 2011

Another example that isn't-quite is "Spartacus" by a somewhat obscure rock group called "Triumvirat". Back when I was a lot younger, I really liked it a lot and listened to it all the time.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:08 PM on December 22, 2011

Technically speaking, a rock opera is an opera if all the dialogue is sung. The style of music is irrelevant. Porgy and Bess is a jazz opera. China has a strong tradition of opera, and it sure doesn't sound anything like Puccini.

That said, I think most productions that are called commonly "rock operas" are actually musicals--a mix of spoken and sung dialogue.

Also, keep in mind that a rock opera is a modern art form--rock music has only been around for about 50 years, and therefore any rock opera may reflect any modern storytelling conventions (or lack thereof).

Also, I believe the classical opera we typically think of as opera was the pop music of its day.
posted by elizeh at 8:08 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I seem to remember that Repo: The Genetic Opera is entirely sung (and therefore opera rather than musical). But I haven't watched it again to confirm. While it is definitely in the rock opera camp, it does contain some actual opera singing as well.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:08 PM on December 22, 2011

Best answer: It really depends on how you're defining opera. The word "opera" just means "works", "pieces of music"; its singular is "opus", which is how a lot of composers organized their works (like Chopin's Opus 10).

The style we think of as Opera was a way of presenting a group of works that was at its height in the 18th Century. This style developed particular conventions, such as having arias and recitative, forming a narrative, having character tropes, and a particular singing style, and having each piece of music in the opera marked as a different number.

Thing is, Operatic style didn't spring out of Mozart's or Wagner's head fully formed and articulated like some kind of theatrical Minerva, it evolved out of previous traditions of popular music presentation like the Greek dramas and church masses. And operatic style didn't just freeze and ossify, it evolved into what would be our current pop and musical theater traditions. That's why musicians will sometimes refer to songs as "numbers", why this riff signifies East Asia, and why Spider Man, Billy Elliot, and Jesus Christ are all tenors.

So in a way, a collection of musical works that are assigned sequential numbers, are meant to be taken as a whole piece, and that tell a coherent narrative through the lyrics really does have a lot in common with the form of an opera. Tommy is a particularly good example of this, because it does other opera-type stuff like start with an overture that introduces all the main musical themes, keep those themes associated with specific characters and events, and has elements of recitative. On the other hand, all the characters are sung by a few voices (except in the film version), the singing isn't the classing operatic style, and arias are replaced by instrumental solos.

So, kind of.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:00 AM on December 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am a big opera fan and I have absolutely no problem calling Jesus Christ Superstar a rock opera. A lot of the other works, including all of the ones on your list, are problematic because they weren't written to be staged and all the "parts" are sung by one or two people. I know that some of them have been staged eventually (although I'm not sure how they managed it coherently in some cases) and that Jesus Christ Superstar was an album before it was staged, but it definitely feels qualitatively different in nature to me.
posted by dfan at 5:54 AM on December 24, 2011

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