Rock Legends RockOn with Rock Operas

Roger Daltrey as Tommy

These days it’s hard for many people to sit through an entire song…it’s like ” oh yeah , this one’s cool “listen a minute., oh, “here’s another one…”  on and on.

In the late 60’s early 70’s, the “Concept Album” and “Rock Opera” became a new genre. The fifties and early sixties rock tunes were 3 minute singles in the form of ballads or dance tunes.  As “FM’”formats allowed for longer songs to be aired, things began to change. Iron Butterfly’s  In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,  a little over seventeen minutes long, was the epic of the genre.  Albums themselves had fantasy artwork and themes on which the  songs were based. These were the concept albums.

Roger Daltrey as TommyBut in 1969, Pete Townsend of The Who came up with a concept that was a full blown story..coining the phrase “RockOpera”.  In April 1969, Pete Townshend and The Who released  ‘Tommy’, the first of The Who’s two full-scale rock operas and the first musical work explicitly billed as a rock opera.  The album 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. In 1975,  Ken Russell directed a star-studded cast, in the film adaptation of  Tommy. The  band members themselves, with lead singer Roger Daltrey playing the title role, were joined by Ann-Margret,  Oliver Reed,  Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson. Who would later release another rock opera, Quadrophenia (1973), also made into a film.

Ann-Margret received a Golden Globe Award for her performance in Tommy, and was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Pete Townshend was also nominated for an Oscar for his work in scoring and adapting the music for the film. The film was shown at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. Elton John, who initially turned down the role, recorded a single of “Pinball Wizard”. This version was released as a single in 1975 in the US, and in 1976 in the UK, where it reached #7 in the latter year. (It went to #4 in the UK when first released in 1969.)

The genius of Townsend was, that this record which was full scale in nature, still  produced singles. At the time (I was eight) I had no idea – by the time I was in my teens it was  song from Tommy that got me listening to The Who. “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” Roger Daltrey’s voice was so clear and powerful, and unique among other radio tunes.  In 1973, The Who would released another rock opera, Quadrophenia, which was also made into a film.

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. The last collaboration of Rice and Lloyd Webber was Evita, which is supposedly considered a rock opera, along with Broadway musical styled songs. The show (like Jesus Christ Superstar) is told entirely in song and, at first, producers[who?] thought that it would be a flop on the Broadway stage. However, it won seven 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 searching for his missing brother. In 1977, Meat Loaf released Bat Out Of Hell, a rock opera about coming of age, and teenage romance and angst.

This week, the BBC announced the debut of a modern day rock opera, Damon Albarn’s ‘folk opera’ Dr Dee, his second effort in the genre. Albarn, who also fronts the pop band Gorillaz, has said Dr Dee has been the most difficult challenge and the most important project of his career.

Unlike some of the works in the 60s and 70s created as ‘concept albums’, this piece was staged during it’s creation with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn performing his songs on a third level above the stage, as commentary on the events below. He sought to combine more traditional operatic themes of mystic advisors, kings kings and queens and their conquests. William Shakespeare is believed to have based the sorcerer Prospero, from The Tempest, on Dee, the mystical advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.

Dr Dee can be seen at the Palace Theatre in Manchester until 9 July and will open at the London Coliseum as part of the London 2012 Festival for the Cultural Olympiad next June.

Thanks to Berkshire Theater Festival, you can catch The Who’s Tommy, starting tomorrow at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, July 7, 8, 9 with previews at 2:00pm.  Opening Night/Press Night is July 9 @ 8pm, with performances Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday and Saturday at 2pm through July 16.

Directed by Eric Hill, this cast includes James Barry of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson as Captain Walker and Randy Harrison from Wicked and Queer as Folk as Tommy.

For more info: 413-298-5576  or  Buy Tickets online.


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