A rock opera is a work of rock music that presents a storyline told over multiple parts, songs or sections in the manner of opera. A rock opera differs from a conventional rock album, which usually includes songs that are not unified by a common theme or narrative. More recent developments include metal opera and rap opera (sometimes also called hip-hopera). A rock opera tells a coherent story, and may involve songs performed as if sung by separate characters in a drama, as in classical opera.
A rock opera may or may not be presented in a staged performance. In recorded form it can be similar to a concept album (of which it is a subset), though the latter may simply set a mood or maintain a theme.
Origin of the term
The July 4, 1966 edition of RPM Magazine (published in Toronto) notes that "Bruce Cockburn and Mr [William] Hawkins are working on a Rock Opera, operating on the premise that to write you need only 'something to say'." The Cockburn / Hawkins rock opera seems not to have been completed, though some songs from the project may be among the Cockburn and Hawkins compositions that appeared on 3's a Crowd's 1968 album, Christopher's Movie Matinee.
Alternatively, the term rock opera may have originated at an informal gathering of Pete Townshend, guitarist for The Who, and some friends at some point that same year (i.e., 1966). Townshend is said to have played a comedy tape to his friends called Gratis Amatis, and one of his friends is said to have made the comment that the odd song was a rock opera. Kit Lambert, the Who's co-manager and producer, is then said to have exclaimed "Now there's an idea!". Later that year, The Who released their first attempt at rock opera, the nine-minute six-part track "A Quick One, While He's Away" from their album A Quick One.
Then an Alley, also known as The Beat Opera, was conceived and staged by Tito Schipa, Jr, composer and director, son of the tenor Tito Schipa, at the Piper Club in Rome, Italy, in May 1967. While Then an Alley, an adaptation of 18 Bob Dylan songs made to fit into a scenic background, made a moderate splash in its country of origin, it went completely unnoticed elsewhere in the world. Schipa Jr. later went on to write and stage the work Orfeo 9 at the Sistina Theater in Rome. It became the first ever staged original Italian rock opera when it debuted in January 1970. Orfeo 9 became a double album and a film under the musical direction of future Academy Award winner Bill Conti.
- A Teenage Opera: In July, 1967, An Excerpt From A Teenage Opera was released as the first part of A Teenage Opera by various artists, which was released later that year.
- The Story of Simon Simopath: 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, and thus the very first rock opera in history. In November of that same year the Montreal group Influence traveled to New York to record what they called a 'mini-opera', "Mad Birds Of Prey", and other songs for their only album.
- Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake, released in May 1968 by English rock band Small Faces featured, on side two, the story based Happiness Stan, a boy who was search for the other half of the moon. It was narrated in his unique ‘Unwinese’ gobbledegook by Stanley Unwin, who picked up modern slang from the band and incorporated it into the surreal narrative. The album was a great success topping the British album charts for six weeks but due to the albums complexities it was never played live fully and the band split up at the end of the year.
- Miss Butters: The only album recorded by The Family Tree, Miss Butters, released in August 1968, is the birth-to-death story of a schoolteacher.
- The Crazy World of Arthur Brown: September 1968 saw release of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's eponymous first album. Produced by Kit Lambert, the album featured a side-long mini-opera reflecting on the horrors of Hell. The mini-opera's centerpiece song, "Fire", was released as a single, reaching #1 in the UK and #2 in the United States.
- The Pretty Things released S.F. Sorrow in December 1968, which told the story of protagonist Sebastian F. Sorrow's life from the cradle to the grave and from joy to misery.
- Tommy: In April 1969 Pete Townshend and The Who released Tommy, the first of The Who's two full-scale rock opera and the first musical work explicitly billed as a rock opera. [In some older publications it is called Tommy (1914–1984).] Produced by Lambert, the album's content was largely composed by Townshend, with two tracks contributed by bassist John Entwistle and one attributed to drummer Keith Moon, although actually written by Townshend. Tommy remains one of the most famous rock operas, with concert, film, ballet, and theatrical productions mounted over the course of four decades. The Who would later release another rock opera, Quadrophenia (1973), also made into a film and a stage musical.
- Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire): In October 1969, The Kinks released Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) their own attempt at a rock opera, released just after Tommy, with great commercial and critical success. It deals with a British man, Arthur, reflecting on his life after his son announces a sudden move to Australia. In the first half of the 1970s the Kinks released a series of rock operas: Preservation: Act 1 (1973), Preservation: Act 2 (1974), Soap Opera (1975) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1976). All these albums were followed by a series of stage productions, in which the band members, and additional personnel, acted as musical and theatre performers.
Townshend's Tommy influenced many, including composer Andrew Lloyd Webber who, with lyricist Tim Rice, composed Jesus Christ Superstar which was first recorded and released as a concept album in 1970. The money made from album sales was used to fund the subsequent stage production in late 1971, which had been Lloyd Webber and Rice's original vision. Jesus Christ Superstar was explicitly billed as a "rock opera" and though it first appeared in recorded form, it became far more famous as a Broadway musical, leading it to be called a "rock musical", blurring the distinction between the two terms. Another collaboration of Rice and Lloyd Webber was Evita, which is supposedly considered a rock opera, along with Broadway musical styled songs. The original Broadway production of Evita (like Jesus Christ Superstar) was told entirely in song and, at first, its producers (David Land and Robert Stigwood) thought that it would be a flop on the Broadway stage. However, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including "Best Musical".
In 1972, David Bowie released his rock opera The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the story of a rock star who is told by aliens to write music in the years preceding the end of the world. The next year, The Who released their second full rock opera Quadrophenia. It is about a mid-1960s teen living with a personality disorder. Also in 1973, Lou Reed released Berlin, a tragic rock opera about a doomed couple, which addresses themes of drug use, depression and suicide. In 1974, Genesis released the rock opera The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a surreal story about a young man on a journey of self-discovery.
In 1978, composer and record producer Jeff Wayne released a musical version of H. G. Wells's Victorian apocalyptic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, in which a number of high profile singers and musicians featured such as David Essex, who worked with Wayne as a producer on his solo career, Moody Blues' singer Justin Hayward, Thin Lizzy vocalist/bassist Phil Lynott, and Julie Covington who had previously sung in Evita. The plot was narrated throughout by an unnamed journalist protagonist played by Richard Burton.
In 1979, Pink Floyd's rock opera The Wall, written primarily by Roger Waters, was released. The Wall has been staged as an elaborate theatre performance by Pink Floyd in 1980 and 1981, by Waters in 1990 in Berlin, and in 2010, 2011, and 2012 by Waters as a worldwide solo tour. It is one of the highest rated and most well known rock operas. The plot was also used for the feature film Pink Floyd The Wall, and Waters is currently adapting the story for a Broadway production. The Wall is one of the best selling rock operas to date. During his subsequent solo career, Waters went on to write two rock operas, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (1984) and Radio K.A.O.S. (1987).
1979 also saw the release of Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage, a three act rock opera about the life of a young musician named Joe, set in a dystopian future where music was made illegal, inspired in part by the Iranian Revolution, which outlawed public musical expression. The album also takes jabs at Scientology.
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo had planned to produce an album called Songs from the Black Hole, which was to be a rock opera about a group of people pursuing an adventure in outer space to rescue an unidentified person or object. After the project was then abandoned in 1995, the band replaced it with their album, Pinkerton. Most of the demo recordings are available, legally or as bootlegs, though four remain unreleased. In 1987 Freddie Mercury teamed up with Montserrat Caballé to produce the famous the rock opera album Barcelona, Barcelona was released on the 10th October 1988.
In 1995 Arjen Anthony Lucassen started his Ayreon project with its first rock opera The Final Experiment, followed by Into the Electric Castle (1998), The Universal Migrator Part 1 & Part 2 (2000), The Human Equation (2004) and 01011001 (2008), which though all self-contained overall formed a continuing bigger story.
Edguy singer and main songwriter Tobias Sammet has written three separate rock operas under the project name Avantasia. The first, The Metal Opera, was released as two albums. The Metal Opera (2001) and The Metal Opera Part II (2002). The second rock opera is known as The Wicked Trilogy and spans three albums The Scarecrow (2008), The Wicked Symphony (2010) and Angel of Babylon (2010). The third installment begins with The Mystery of Time (2013) and will be concluded with the release of another album. All three operas feature many well known rock musicians.
Some heavy metal bands have released albums inspired by rock opera, often in a progressive metal framework. In some cases they have overlapped considerably with the format of metal concept albums. Queensrÿche's fourth album Operation: Mindcrime expanded the genre from their previous three rock opera by bridging rock opera with real opera and a stage production complete with the story playing on jumbotrons in live versions and DVD releases. Albums by Opeth (My Arms, Your Hearse), W.A.S.P. (The Crimson Idol, The Neon God: Part 1 - The Rise, The Neon God, Pt. 2: The Demise), Dream Theater (Scenes From a Memory), Kamelot (Epica, The Black Halo), Blind Guardian (And Then There Was Silence), Dimmu Borgir, Pain of Salvation, Protest the Hero (Kezia) and Epidemia are a few examples of metal opera albums. The Italian power metal band Rhapsody of Fire (formerly "Rhapsody") released several complementary albums that each continued a single mega-"DragonRock" opera. King Diamond has almost exclusively released metal opera albums, with only two albums containing stand alone tracks (though even these albums have several related tracks each).
The American heavy metal band Savatage released three rock operas, Streets: A Rock Opera (1991), Dead Winter Dead (1995) and The Wake of Magellan (1998), before the same composers continued the release of a series of rock operas under the banner of American progressive metal band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, including Christmas Eve and Other Stories (1996), The Christmas Attic (1998), Beethoven's Last Night (2001), The Lost Christmas Eve (2004) and the two-disc Night Castle (2009).
The composer Andy DiGelsomina calls his Lyraka project "Wagnerian Opera Metal", due to the influence of Richard Wagner's opera Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The project's first release, Lyraka Volume 1, received much critical acclaim, with Martin Popoff referring to DiGelsomina as a "great songwriter", and the opera itself as "the next Led Zeppelin". The second volume of the opera is being recorded and is slated for release December 2012.
Punk rock opera is a term coined by the punk band Green Day to describe their 2004 album, American Idiot, which was written about a teenage boy who runs away from home to find himself and how his life is before and after. Their 2009 follow-up album, 21st Century Breakdown, continues the rock opera style. Rock opera have been written in other languages as well, such as Gaia II: La Voz Dormida in 2005 by the Spanish rock group Mägo de Oz. On September 22, 2005, rock band Ludo released a rock opera entitled Broken Bride. In 2006, New Jersey rock quintet My Chemical Romance released a rock opera, titled The Black Parade, about a man dying from cancer. In 2008, Dutch band Xystus, along with an eighty-piece orchestra and four additional vocalists, released Equilibrio, which involved a stage show in addition to the studio album. The Protomen, an American rock band, released two rock opera, the Protomen, and its prequel, Act II: The Father Of Death in 2005 and 2009, respectively. Most notably, both albums dealt with the fictional video game character, Mega Man. Also in 2008, the "Space Monkey Odyssey" rock opera by the Evil Monkeybrothers was first performed publicly on August 2, 2008 at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia. Since then, the Evil Monkeybrothers have performed the show at REFERENCE art gallery in Richmond, Virginia and will be performing August 3, 2013 at Longwood college in Farmville Virginia. The "Space Monkey Odyssey" tells the story of Simon, chimpanzee sent by NASA in 1965 and left in space to die by the evil "Dr. Pondscum". He becomes irradiated to grotesque size and pursues his odyssey/rampage in order to find his lost love,"Katrina", and get back at Pondscum and all mankind. "Simon" kidnaps rock icons Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison and fakes the stories of their deaths in an attempt to destroy man's true "power and soul", Rock and Roll. A documentary film, "Monkey Circus:The Story of the Space Monkey Odyssey has been shown in local theaters in Virginia.
Heavy metal musician Devin Townsend released his comedic tongue-in-cheek metal opera Ziltoid the Omniscient in 2007, telling the story of the eponymous extraterrestrial who comes to Earth seeking the most perfect cup of coffee.
2009 saw the release of several different rock opera. In March, folk rock group The Decemberists released a rock opera entitled The Hazards of Love, telling the story of a doomed love affair between an innocent young woman and a cursed man. That same month, Mastodon released its fourth full length album entitled Crack the Skye. Its story tells of a quadriplegic space traveler who can only travel through astral projection. In April, Christian pop punk band FM Static released Dear Diary, which tells a story of a high school boy who goes through typical teenage struggles such as love, death, and self-discovery. In May, Green Day released the aforementioned 21st Century Breakdown; it follows two lovers named Christian and Gloria as they struggle with religious beliefs and rebellion in the 21st century. In 2010, the progressive rock band Coheed and Cambria completed their fifth album, Year of the Black Rainbow which is the prequel album to their storyline called the Amory Wars, which arcs through their previous four albums. Also in 2010, American post-hardcore band Alesana released The Emptiness, which is a follows more of a horror-themed narrative. The following year, came about the release of a third album Canadian hardcore punk band Fucked Up. David Comes to Life was released on June 7, 2011. On November 21, 2011, pop rock band Marianas Trench released their third studio album Ever After, a rock opera with a fairy tale styled story line told through 12 gapless tracks. In 2013 religious rock band Skillet released their album Rise, which tells the story of a teenager moving into the real world and the hard experiences there in and who finds release through salvation in Christ.
Volunteer productions have sprung up as well. Founded in 1993, the non-profit Boston Rock Opera presents theatrical stagings of rock opera, narrative song, song cycles and conceptual rock works. In 2009, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society formed out of Baltimore, Maryland. The group has put on four spectacle-heavy rock operas since 2009, all featuring original scores.
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- (Decemberists' Colin Meloy talks Hazards of Love Paste Magazine.)
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