A rock opera is a work of rock music that presents a storyline told over multiple parts, songs or sections in the manner of 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 and rap opera (sometimes also called hip-hopera). 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 can be similar to a concept album (of which it is a subset), though the latter may simply set a mood or maintain a theme.
Origin of the term
The July 4, 1966 edition of RPM Magazine (published in Toronto) notes that "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'." The Cockburn / Hawkins rock opera seems not to have been completed, though some songs from the project may be among the Cockburn and Hawkins compositions that appeared on 3's a Crowd's 1968 album, Christopher's Movie Matinee.
Alternatively, the term rock opera may have originated at an informal gathering of Pete Townshend, guitarist for The Who, and some friends at some point that same year (i.e., 1966). Townshend is said to have played a comedy tape to his friends called Gratis Amatis, and one of his friends is said to have made the comment that the odd song was a rock opera (Kit Lambert, the Who's co-manager and producer, is then said to have exclaimed "Now there's an idea!"). Later that year, The Who released their first attempt at an operatic rock song, the track "A Quick One, While He's Away" from their album A Quick One.
Then an Alley, also known as The Beat Opera, was conceived and staged by Tito Schipa, Jr, composer and director, son of the tenor Tito Schipa, at the Piper Club in Rome, Italy, in May 1967. While Then an Alley, an adaptation of 18 Bob Dylan songs made to fit into a scenic background, made a moderate splash in its country of origin, it went completely unnoticed elsewhere in the world. Schipa Jr. later went on to write and stage the work Orfeo 9 at the Sistina Theater in Rome. It became the first ever staged original Italian rock opera when it debuted in January 1970. Orfeo 9 became a double album and a film under the musical direction of future Academy Award winner Bill Conti.
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