L.A. Times still trying to define "Tommy"

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Sat Aug 11 07:15:40 CDT 2007

http://tinyurl.com/2w95ac (for full article)

Rock opera in a post-'Tommy' world
As walls fall between classical and pop, the genre
gets a fighting chance.
By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

...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

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...

...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

...The problem with rock opera is how to retain the
aggressive, rebellious vitality and immediacy of pop
while controlling theatrical time on a large scale and
capturing the subtlety of character development, along
with underscoring drama and possibly resolving it.

On "Endless Wire," its latest studio album, the Who
includes a "mini-opera" made up of 10 songs -- more
sophisticated and mature than those of "Tommy" but
still just 10 songs. "The Boy Who Heard Music," which
started out as an Internet novella by Townshend,
apparently tries more, with these and other songs
assigned to four characters onstage. Even so, the
characters are band members: three youngsters and a
rock geezer...

-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!

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