Even in High Society, there aren’t many faster ways to clear a room politely than bring up the subject of Opera. Everyone gives a nod, a panicked smile, and then slowly backs out, unable to name a single one. If we took a poll, most people would probably say their exposure to opera consists of what they learned from Bugs Bunny http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2mjbrz, or perhaps Animaniacs. Don’t worry, I’m not going to change your mind. You won’t get me to sit through an entire one, either, except maybe Aida. Any play with live elephants and camels is awesome.
So, what IS opera? Opera is a play, usually in acts, where all the dialogue is sung in an operatic style (and you know what that sounds like). The music is big, heavy, foreign, and so are the singers. Operetta is still an opera but usually much shorter, and they are often comedies. A musical is just a play where people burst into songs, or songs and dance now and then.
So where does Les Miserables fall? I liked that movie, and I hate opera! Les Mis is a bone of contention. It is not an opera, because the songs are not sung in the operatic style. It’s more than a musical, because all the dialogue is sung and there’s certainly nothing to dance about, like Oliver! dreaming of a real meal. So at best, for lack of a better term, the experts call Les Mis a sung-through, meaning there is some non-song dialogue, but the lines are sung without being part of a song (think of Javert and Jean Valjean’s confrontation in singsong https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8WSysB5vKM). Some call Les Mis a “popera,” or pop-opera, but those aren’t exactly songs that will climb record charts, and others try to call it a rock-opera, which it is also definitely not.
So what then IS rock opera? At some point in your life, on some radio station, you’ve heard a version of “Pinball Wizard,” or “We Don’t Need No Education” (the technical title is “Another Brick in the Wall part 2”). Those songs come from the two most well-known Rock Operas, Tommy, and The Wall. A rock opera consists of a full-length story in which the story is told through song, but the music is entirely modern and popular.
Tommy, by The Who, was the first work known as Rock Opera (1969). Purists will say it is not opera because it is not sung in opera fashion; the fact remains, it is a full story told entirely in song. In short, as a child, Tommy witnesses his father kill his mother’s boyfriend, retreats into an autistic-like trance, and endures much abuse as his parents look for ways to break him free. They discover that, even though it doesn’t appear he can hear, speak, or see, he is a master at pinball, which they use to draw him out and return him to society. Yes, there are differences between the album, the play, and the movie version, but the flow of the story remains the same. The movie includes Tina Turner, Elton John, and Peter Frampton. ‘Nuff said.
Fastforward ten years. The Brits hit again, with the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1979. The Wall is a masterpiece of modern music, the story of a rock singer (Pinkerton Floyd) who builds a mental wall to insulate himself from the outside world, which he feels has abandoned him. The death of his father in WWII, his overbearing mother, his abusive teachers, his unfaithful wife are all bricks in his wall, until, isolated and alone, he festers until the court of his peers orders the wall be torn down and he be returned to the world. It’s a masterpiece of suffering, death, and rebirth, without a word of dialogue. The movie had mixed reviews, but remains faithful to the vision. Check out the concert version here.
A third, more modern piece (2004) that can be considered Rock Opera is Green Day’s American Idiot, which chronicles the “disillusionment and dissent experienced by (Jesus of Suburbia) a generation which came of age during various turmoil including the Iraq War.” What is it with wars creating Opera? Admittedly heavily influenced by The Who, the only real difference I see with American Idiot from its predecessors is it seems to be a LOT LOUDER. Songs like “Wake Me Up When September Comes” are just as worthy and beautiful.
Sure, some people try to lump Ziggy Stardust in here, and Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but there is a difference between a “concept” album and a rock opera. Think of a concept album as a book of short stories around a theme, whereas a rock opera is an entire novel.
So if ladies in Viking horns screeching for the high notes aren’t your style, try a rock opera. Drama, intrigue, murder, drug addiction, infidelity, and rebirth, all set to some pretty catchy music – and sometimes a pretty good movie, too. What more can you ask for?