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Nearly 40 Years Since 'Tommy,' The Two Worlds Still Collide.

August 12, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Manchester, England

Seb HUNTER'S "Rock Me Amadeus" hooked me the moment I opened it in a Manchester bookshop and saw its epigraph, a quote from Elvis: "I don't know anything about music. In my line, you don't have to."

Later in the book, when Hunter gets around to opera, this good-natured British rock journalist -- hoping to get a handle on Handel and classical music in general -- likens Wagner to U2 playing Meat Loaf at Neverland.

That's not a bad analogy for a 19th century proto-psychedelic German opera icon, and it seemed not at all inappropriate for a town that dotes on its rock 'n' roll heritage (yet boasts, with the Hallé, the oldest orchestra in Britain).

Manchester, also not inappropriately, was where I had gone this summer to see the world premiere of Damon Albarn's rock opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West." The Broadway and film versions of "Tommy" probably had bigger budgets, but the multi-culti, multimedia "Monkey," directed and conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng, is surely the most artistically ambitious rock opera yet.

Forty years have passed since the Who first envisioned "Tommy," which was called a rock opera but released in 1969 as a two-LP concept album with a fuzzy narrative thread. The Who went on refining "Tommy" over the years (and decades) as it evolved in live concerts, Ken Russell's movie and Des McAnuff's staging.

The Broadway "Tommy" continues to circulate. A production of Pete Townshend's "rock odyssey" (as it's also called) just closed in Everett, Wash., on July 15. And the Who remains operatically indefatigable. Two days earlier, Vassar College held a public run-through of Townshend's latest rock opera, "The Boy Who Heard Music," which incorporates songs from the Who's 2006 album, "Endless Wire."

Rock opera has had a spotty history, but by now the barriers between high and low art, between classical and pop music, have been so thoroughly demolished that something was bound to have happened. And, in fact, rockers are welcomed into the opera house and concert hall like never before. Meanwhile, classical composers appropriate from the pop world like crazy. Once-traditional opera companies and classical record labels, ever seeking new audiences (and sources of revenue), have greeted the pop invasion with open arms. Bright Eyes will play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic next month at the Hollywood Bowl, and no one need bat an eyelash.

Deutsche Grammophon has recently released a rock opera by Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori, "Welcome to the Voice," in which Sting, Robert Wyatt and Elvis Costello mingle with Barbara Bonney and other opera singers. Nieve is Costello's longtime keyboardist, and speaking of Costello, he was asked by the Royal Danish Opera to write a work about Hans Christian Andersen, which was produced in Copenhagen last spring.

Paul McCartney hasn't stepped into rock opera, but he's closing in with a new and pretty hourlong choral work, "Ecce Cor Meum," out on EMI Classics. Freddie Mercury, that most overtly operatic of rockers, once hooked up with soprano Montserrat Caballé for the gloriously over-the-top "Barcelona." Caballé is now retired and Mercury is dead, but "Barcelona" lives on; it was just revived by the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra with a Sicilian rock singer and a Dutch soprano for a Brilliant Classics recording. Another opera-buff pop star, Rufus Wainwright, has been commissioned by the hallowed Metropolitan Opera to come up with something or other.

The only problem with all this is that very little rock opera is opera, and very, very little of it is any good. Rockers don't typically claim opera expertise -- just substitute "opera" for "music" in Presley's quote.

Rock opera may have a nice ring, but "Tommy" has far less in common with "Tosca" than it does with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." When the Beatles began the fad for concept albums that special year of 1967, the feeling was that anything was possible. Pop was prepared to rule the world, so why not take on opera?

But "Tommy" was not a hit because Townshend strung 24 songs together with an edifying (and quintessentially operatic) story about an abused child who grows up to be an abusing guru. "Tommy" was a hit because it is a great rock album. Reissued as a SuperAudio CD three years ago, it sounds more splendid than ever. But many have pointed out that a collection of songs is a song cycle. Russell's film is primarily a pioneering rock video. "Tommy" onstage is a rock musical, which means watered way down. On the original album, the Who was simply doing what it knew how to do.

The fact that there aren't individual characters who sing in "Tommy," merely songs about characters, doesn't invalidate the work's opera credentials. In two contemporary British operas -- Gerald Barry's "The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit" and George Benjamin's "Into the Little Hill" -- the singers are not the characters and the narrative is, as in a Renaissance madrigal or a concept album, delivered by one and all.

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