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What Is a Rock Opera?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 23, 2024
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Like a traditional opera, a rock opera is a dramatic work in which almost all of the lines are sung. Unlike a traditional operas that rely on classical music, rock operas use rock music to tell their stories. They often begin as conceptual albums that are then adapted to stage plays. Most popular in the late 1960s through the 1970s, arguably the two most famous rock operas are Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tommy by the band The Who.

There are two main types of rock operas: the symbolic and the full. The symbolic rock opera contains no cast and exists on an audio recording only. These kinds of rock operas are usually released by a band or a singer, and include such examples as Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink Floyd's The Wall. Encompassing both visual as well as auditory elements, full rock operas contain a cast and are performed as a play. Whether symbolic or full, to be considered a rock opera, however, the work must have clear characters and tell a story.

Though the style was popular for most of a decade, the creation of these operas was not abundant, and there are relatively few examples of this genre as compared to others. The band The Who is credited for the creation of this style. Their album Tommy follows the life and recovery of a mentally traumatized boy. Released in 1969, it is usually cited as the first example of a rock opera. Tommy began as a symbolic opera, existing only on The Who's album, but was not only later turned into a play, but a movie and a ballet were also created.

Tommy was not, however, the first album The Who released which could be termed a rock opera. In 1966, they created a nine minute long track, sometimes termed a mini rock opera, which was called "A Quick One While He is Away." Its brevity generally discounts it as being as the first rock opera by most, however.

In 1971, Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar was released on Broadway. A fully conceptualized rock opera, it played on Broadway for eight years and spawned a movie. Jesus Christ Superstar tells of the last days of Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion. The tale is told by Judas, the disciple who eventually betrayed him. Though it was originally released in album form only and garnered criticism from some religious institutions, Jesus Christ Superstar is largely thought to be one of the best examples of a rock opera existing.

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Discussion Comments

By TreeMan — On Jul 02, 2012

I can't believe no one has mentioned Meat Loaf yet. He is the only person that I can think of right now who has basically made an entire career off of rock operas. Some bands may put out a couple operas during their career, but it isn't what they are typically known for. Meat Loaf has had all three Bat Out of Hell albums, though.

I was watching a documentary about the first album not too long ago. It was very interesting hearing about the dedication it took to get the album signed by a record label. I think one of the most interesting parts for that band is that they all started off doing Broadway musicals and then decided to make Bat Out of Hell as a side project.

I am not sure if the Rocky Horror Picture Show would count as a rock opera or not, since it started out as a musical, but it would come close to falling into the genre at least.

By jcraig — On Jul 01, 2012

@JimmyT - If you're interested in more, I would do a quick internet search, and I'm sure you'll find a lot of popular ones as well as some that are more rare. One good one that a lot of people probably aren't familiar with is the Frank Zappa rock opera called Joe's Garage. If you aren't familiar with Frank Zappa, most of his songs deal with political issues and other topics from the 60s and 70s. His music can be pretty offensive at times, though, so the album is definitely not something you'll want to listen to if you're easily offended. For any guitar players, the album is a must-hear.

The thing I have noticed from a lot of these albums is that rock opera songs tend to be a little bit longer than regular songs. I guess that is mostly because the artists are trying to tell a little bit more of the story with each part. The thing that is unfortunate is that when the songs make it on the radio, they are often edited down to 3-4 minutes.

By JimmyT — On Jul 01, 2012

@cardsfan27 - I know what you mean with The Wall. I was talking to a friend about it a while back, and we both had completely different ideas about what some of the lyrics were supposed to mean. The article just mentions it as a symbolic rock opera, but the album was eventually main into a movie, too.

Surprisingly, I never had listen to Tommy. I am familiar with all of the singles from the album, but I've never sat down to hear the whole thing. I am not really a big fan of The Who, though. Besides Tommy, The Who also released Quadrophenia, which is another example of a rock opera.

I was also unaware that Jesus Christ Superstar was a rock opera. I thought it was just a regular musical. I guess I might have to take some time and check out a few more of these rock operas. Does anyone have any good examples of other ones?

By cardsfan27 — On Jun 30, 2012

I love listening to rock operas. It is a much more involved experience than just listening to an album that is one song after another. It is not to say that those albums can't be great. I just like the rock operas, because even the songs that never become popular still have some sort of meaning to the album as a whole. I think the rock operas are also a chance for the musicians to express themselves or their ideas in a way that they may not be able to do otherwise.

I think The Wall is a perfect example of that. If I remember correctly, The Wall was written as a way for Roger Waters to express his disdain towards the band's fans at the time. Every now and then when I am in the mood, I just like to lay down on my bed and listen to The Wall from beginning to end. I think one of the greatest parts of that is trying to figure out exactly what the storyline is, since it isn't spelled out for the listener.

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