A rock opera is a work of rock music that presents a storyline told over multiple parts, songs or sections; however, it is not an 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, punk rock opera, and rap opera (sometimes also called hip-hopera). In Russia, rock opera may be known as zong-opera (Зонг-опера).
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 is a type of concept album, though the latter may simply set a mood or maintain a theme.
In an early use of the term, the July 4, 1966, edition of RPM Magazine (published in Toronto) wrote, "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'."
Colin Fleming of The Atlantic identifies The Story of Simon Simopath (1967) by British psychedelic band Nirvana as the first rock opera. Neil Strauss of The New York Times wrote that S.F. Sorrow (1968) by The Pretty Things is "generally acknowledged as the first rock opera." Although Pete Townshend denied taking any influence from S.F. Sorrow, critics have compared Tommy to it. Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that, although Tommy was not the first rock opera, it was the first album to be billed as such. Tommy would go on to influence On and On, a rap opera by The Fat Boys and American Idiot, a punk rock opera by Green Day. In an effort to appeal to more modern audiences, opera companies have welcomed more pop and rock influences. The resulting rock operas have met varying degrees of success as the worlds of high art and low art mix.
In Russian music, the term zong-opera (Зонг-опера) is sometimes used, since the first Soviet-Russian rock-opera Orpheus and Eurydice was described with this term for political reasons. While the term "rock-opera" was already known in the Soviet rock music circles, the term "rock" was blacklisted by the Soviet Ministry of Culture. Therefore, the term "zong" was used, a Russian-language rendering of the German word "Song", borrowed from German for philosophical Songs embedded in the dramaturgy of Bertold Brecht, officially popularized in the Soviet Union.
According to Fleming, rock operas are more akin to a cantata or suite, as they are not usually acted out. Similarly, Andrew Clements of The Guardian called Tommy a subversively-labeled musical. Clements states that lyrics drive rock operas, which makes them not a true form of opera. Responding to accusations that rock operas are pretentious and overblown, Pete Townshend wrote that pop music by its very nature deflates such attitudes and is simplistic. Townshend said that the only goal of pop music is to reach audiences, and rock operas are merely one more way to do so. Peter Kiesewalter, on the other hand, said that rock music and opera are "both overblown, massive spectacles" that cover the same themes. Kiesewalter, who was originally not a fan of opera, did not think the two styles would mix well together, but his modernized operas with rock music surprised him with their popularity at the East Village Opera Company.
Rock operas are usually recorded and performed on albums by the artists themselves, but they can also be performed on the stage, such as Rent, which played on Broadway. This usage has also courted controversy; Anne Midgette of The New York Times called them musicals with "no more than the addition of a keyboard and a drum set."
- Fleming, Colin (2011-11-15). "The Who Made the Best Rock Opera Ever, but It's Not the One You Think". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Strauss, Neil (1998-09-03). "THE POP LIFE; The First Rock Opera (No, Not 'Tommy')". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Mervis, Scott (2012-11-06). "The Who resurrects its 'other' rock opera, 'Quadrophenia'". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Wayne, Renee Lucas (1989-10-05). "Fat Boys Built To Rap Opera Album Hits Stores Today". Philadelphia Daily News. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Ruggieri, Melissa (2014-04-29). "'American Idiot' brings heart of rock 'n' roll to stage". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Swed, Mark (2007-08-17). "At last, a rock opera that sings". Boston.com. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- "Единственный в России" ("Unique in Russia"), by Pyotr Pchelintsev (retrieved March 16, 2014)
- Clements, Andrew (2002-02-08). "When is an opera not an opera?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Townshend, Pete (2002-03-30). "Tommy, get your gun...". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Brookes, Stephen (2008-03-28). "Rock Opera. Seriously.". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Pareles, Jon (1996-04-28). "POP VIEW;Can Rock Play to the Broadway Crowd?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
- Midgette, Anne (2006-01-28). "Cruising and Schmoozing While Looking for Mr. Right". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-24.