Rock: But Is It Opera?
Twenty years ago the British rock group The Who threw down the most ambitious gauntlet in rock-and-roll history—the rock opera Tommy.
Two decades later, the gauntlet still untouched, The Who returned to America to recreate that triumph in two up-to-$1,000-a-ticket performances of Tommy in New York and Los Angeles. Those historic performances were the bookends of a North American tour that quickly became the standout, soldout, rock-and-roll event of the summer.
The return of rock opera at Radio City Music Hall before 4,000 lucky—and rich—Who fans was the monster kickoff of the tour. How can you fault a rock concert in which "Behind Blue Eyes," "Won't Get Fooled Again," and "Baba O'Riley" are just part of the encore? After that, The Who began packing 60,000 people a night into outdoor stadiums.
Not bad for three graying rockers who once sang, "Hope I die before I get old."
What made Tommy such a hot ticket—despite the price—is the place it has in rock history. When The Who performed it in the Metropolitan Opera House in 1970, a New York opera critic proclaimed, "The forces of the future are no longer standing at the gate. They are inside."
But since then, rock has produced nothing like it. No one has written music as cohesive or as intellectually pretentious. And by the mid-'70s, The Who got exhausted by the demands of two solid hours of performing without a single break for a glass of water or a smoke. Tommy hadn't been performed front-to-back since many of The Who's current fans were born.
Period piece or timeless classic? Lead singer Roger Daltry put Tommy's return in perspective from the first moment he sauntered onto Radio City's spacious stage. "Show some respect," he said, quoting the late drummer Keith Moon. "It's a fucking opera."
Yes, and getting more and more like one as the years pass. At Radio City, ushers showed ticket holders to their velvet-covered seats and handed them embossed programs complete with libretto. Much of the audience wore suits; the few people up and dancing were asked to sit down. This may not have been opera, but it certainly wasn't your average rock concert.
Onstage, the number of performers Tommy needs had grown from 4 to 15, an impressive ensemble and chorus that only needed a few spears to keep the operatic tradition alive. The extra musicians were also necessary to keep alive The Who's reputation—earned when it was considered a compliment—as one of rock's loudest bands.
The Who are getting old; their spark plug, Keith Moon, died a decade ago, leaving only Daltry, bassist John Entwistle, and guitarist/guru Pete Townshend, all well into their 40s. They frankly needed the firepower of a five-man brass section, three backup singers, two percussionists, a keyboard player, and a lead guitarist to pick up the slack.
Rumors before the summer tour began gave Who fans the willies. Townshend was deaf; Daltry's voice was gone; Entwistle was just doing it for the money. Townshend refused to play electric guitar or do his trademark "windmill" guitar licks, relying on acoustic guitar and letting an anonymous session man do the tough parts.
But it turned out that The Who were just playing the same expectations game that George Bush and his spin doctors played before last year's presidential debates. Just after the sacred word fuck went out on a 300-station coast-to-coast radio hookup, The Who picked up their instruments and just about wrote themselves into rock-and-roll history all over again.
Daltry, who has returned to the curly-blond pretty boy look he sported during Tommy's heydey, established almost from the start that his voice could still reach the same screaming heights that used to get fans out of their seats. Entwistle showed that the only thing he had changed was the color of his coat's Union Jack design—done over entirely in grays and black, as befits a rock-and-roll graybeard.
But Townshend's acoustic guitar got lost in the band's new tower-of-power sound, and it wasn't until his first major set piece, "Pinball Wizard," that he was able to step from behind the wall of noise. "Pinball Wizard" is a guitar virtuoso's dream, a series of fast, clean, almost drumlike chords that deserve the special treatment than an acoustic guitar can provide.
No one cheered during Townshend's performance of the song. Instead they sat, mesmerized by his handiwork, and left the cheering till the end. Once Townshend established his part in the wall of sound, it lingered in the audience's ears despite the lack of an electric boost. You couldn't always put your finger on the elusive line Townshend was strumming, but when he paused it was sorely missed.
Some rock acts suffer when taken out of the studio, but Tommy is one that demands a live performance. Townshend, Tommy's creator and the brains behind The Who, has always insisted that the audience is an important part of the act. "I've seen Who concerts where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the whole world was just going to stop," Townshend once said. "The idea is to make the first real superstar.…That star would be all of us."
Unfortunately, Townshend's published thoughts on the subject are mired in the vocabulary of the mid-1960s. By the time people found a less goofy way of expressing themselves, The Who had stopped performing Tommy in front of an audience. Radio City provided a postmodern test of Townshend's wish to make the audience part of the performance. Does this sound stupid because our 1980s sensibilities are so sophisticated, or does it sound stupid because it is stupid?
Rock opera does differ from its more traditional counterpart in one way: The audience gets to sing along. Indeed, there are moments in Tommy that require the audience to act as a chorus—particularly near the end, when Daltry's character has set himself up as a Messianic figure and the libretto calls for an audience to shout him down:
We're not gonna take it
Never have and never will…
With a huge bank of spotlights purposefully trained on the crowd, 4,000 bodies stood as one, chanting, dancing, sobbing, and pumping fists in the air. Four thousand voices took on the job of bringing Tommy home, proving Townshend right, and, not incidentally, giving Daltry's voice a bit of a rest.
But is it opera?
At the very least, opera should have a coherent narrative. But any attempts to pin Townshend down on the meaning of Tommy ultimately fail. The libretto (OK, lyrics) are ambiguous and specify no actions, no motives, no emotions. How can it be an opera if it doesn't have a story?
Yet at the very end, Townshend does provide a clue. By that point, the crowd usually sings along, but if they'd listen, they would hear The Who paying them very high praise:
Right behind you, I see the millions
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story…
Right at the end, Townshend tips his hand. The audience determines the narrative, provides its own interpretation, pours out its own emotions, and gives The Who the story. Not even Wagner or Rossini would pamper the audience to this extent. So is Tommy opera?
T. Keating Holland is a pollster and opera aficionado in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Rock: But Is It Opera?".