A rock opera or rock musical is a musical production in the form of an opera or a musical in a modern rock and roll style rather than more traditional forms. It differs from conventional rock and roll music, which is often a song that is unlinked in plot or story with other songs, but overlaps considerably with concept album, song cycle, or rock musical. More recent developments include metal opera and rap opera.
Which of these categories a particular work falls into is largely defined by the intent and self-definition of the work by its creator. The formal distinction may be that the rock opera tells a coherent (if sometimes sketchy) story, often with first-person lyrics sung by characters, while a concept album or song cycle sets a mood or maintains a theme, but some albums share aspects of both of these cases. The rock musical is generally first performed as a theatrical production rather than appearing as an album, has little or no identification with a particular band and a generally stronger air of show business. The categories are flexible, to say the least.
Pete Townshend, both with and without his band The Who, is arguably the single artist most associated with the term rock opera. The earliest example of the form was seen in the track "A Quick One While He's Away" from The Who's second album, A Quick One (1966), a nine-minute suite of song snippets telling an operatic story. In 1968 The Pretty Things released S.F. Sorrow, thought to be the first attempt at a single thematic concept expressed over an album's worth of songs. Less than a year later The Who returned with Tommy, the first album explicitly billed as a rock opera. Tommy remains the most famous rock opera, with concert, film and theatrical productions mounted over the course of three decades. The Who would later release Quadrophenia, also made into a film.
Townshend is also considered the originator of the term itself. In 1966, he played a comedy tape to his friends called "Gratis Amatis". One of his friends made the comment that the odd song was "rock opera." Kit Lambert, the Who's producer, is than believed to have said "Now there's an idea!"
What appears to be the first actual experiment in Rock Opera – officially accepted and so baptized by all major specialistic press in Italy – is "Then an Alley", aka The Beat Opera, conceived and staged by Tito Schipa, Jr., composer and director, son of the tenor Tito Schipa, at Piper Club in Rome (Italy), May 1967, adapting in a scenic form 18 Bob Dylan's songs. Schipa Jr. eventually wrote and staged at the Sistina Theater in Rome "Orfeo 9", first original italian Rock Opera and probably the first to be staged in the world (January 1970). "Orfeo 9" became also a double record and a film under the musical conduction of the Oscar winner Bill Conti.
Rock operas and rock musicals
Examples of notable rock operas and rock musicals include:
- The Electric Prunes, Mass in F Minor (1968)
- Pretty Things, S.F. Sorrow (1968): Either the first rock opera or the first concept album.
- The Small Faces, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake (1968): The latter half of this record can also be considered an early rock opera/concept album.
- The Who, Tommy (1969): The album which arguably popularized the term rock opera. Later a movie and revival as well, in a Broadway production.
- Pete Townshend, Lifehouse; Abandoned, then revived sci-fi rock opera. Many of the songs originally appeared on the 1971 album, Who's Next.
- Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease, (1972)
- David Bowie, Diamond Dogs (1974): Diamond Dogs was originally written as a rock opera version of George Orwell's novel 1984, but Bowie was denied the rights to produce it by Orwell's estate. He used the completed tracks on Diamond Dogs without alteration
- Charlie Smalls, The Wiz (1975)
- Meat Loaf, Bat out of Hell (1977): Bat out of Hell was a modernized adaptation of Peter Pan similar to West Side Story's treatment of Romeo and Juliet. It was never staged and only the album was released. However, the tracks are fragments of an earlier musical that the composer/writer (Jim Steinman) of the album had written.
- Pete Townshend, White City (1986): Subtitled "A novel," a video was released in conjunction with this album.
- Pete Townshend, The Iron Man (1989): A "musical" based on Ted Hughes' book The Iron Man (which was also the basis for the animated film The Iron Giant).
- Pete Townshend, Psychoderelict (1993): An album of linked songs with dialogue advancing the story between the music; a version without the dialogue was also released.
- Meat Loaf, Bat out of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1993): A sequel to Bat out of Hell written/composed again by Jim Steinman.
- Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Smokey Joe's Cafe (1995): A revue with dozens of Lieber and Stoller songs.
- Jim Steinman, Tanz der Vampire (1997): A Rock opera musical about Vampires, based on the Roman Polanski movie with the same name.
- Blind Guardian, Nightfall in Middle-Earth (1998): The first power metal opera based on the J.R.R. Tolkien book The Silmarillion. Blind Guardian's first and only completely Tolkien-influenced LP release.
- Green Day, American Idiot (2004): A punk rock opera depicting the story of Bay Area characters 'Jesus of Suburbia'/'St.Jimmy' and 'Whatsername.'
- Acda en de Munnik, Ren Lenny Ren (2004)
- Say Anything, Say Anything is a Real Boy (2004): The story of a boy who is cursed by having all his innermost thoughts and feelings burst forth from him in the form of fully-orchestrated rock anthems.