Rock opera and The Who’s Tommy

27 Jul 2021

The history of opera, and of music written for the stage, is peppered with changemakers who have created groundbreaking pieces of theatre containing songs and tunes with mass appeal.

Original Tommy Album cover (left) and Tommy Film Poster (right)

The original operas by Claudio Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi, Jean-Baptiste Lully and others, were long events framed around meal breaks and parties filled with court romance and intrigue. The lighter operas of Mozart were written for the masses, with beautiful and memorable tunes, fantastical characters, and tongue-in-cheek social commentary. The tunes of Verdi have since become some of the most recognisable pieces of music in the world. Composers like Handel, Wagner, Puccini, Cole Porter, Igor Stravinsky, and many more incorporated the most modern sounds and innovations in music into their scores to create memorable and new developments. 

This trend continues to this very day and is seen across Victorian Opera’s Season 2021 in works like the world premiere double bill of Echo & Narcissus Cassandra, whose music straddled the glittering contemporary pointillism alongside the powerful and driving rhythm of modern life; Lorelei, which embraced a wide and varied musical palette of pastiche, film music, experimental techniques and musical theatre; and most obviously in The Who’s Tommy

Written during the experimental 1960s by one of the world’s loudest rock bands, The Who, Tommy changed the trajectory of how music could be created and incorporated into theatrical works. The original album was born from a desire to create a recording that not only had Top 10 hits, but a story with a clear concept and character development. This idea was really the brainchild of guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, who wanted to push the compositional opportunities of the rock song into new territory.  

The concept album had been around for a while, but Tommy really put this genre on the map. It sparked a cultural phenomenon that influenced some of the biggest bands and pop artists in the world, such as Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie and the Eagles. It also influenced changemakers in other fields, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, and Frank Zappa in the jazz-pop/Avant-garde cross-over. 

Pete Townshend has cited many varied influences on the development of Tommy, and musically didn’t shy away from omitting the influence of some of the greatest achievements in musical works that explored certain concepts – such as Franz Schubert’s epoch song-cycle Winterreise, Wagner’s music dramas and Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten.  

Townshend has said: ‘I’ve listened to a wide range of classical music throughout my life. Most Who fans will know that my mentor Kit Lambert [son of British composer and conductor Constance Lambert] introduced me to the English composer Henry Purcell, I was just 19-years-old. I was greatly inspired by Purcell. Later I was intrigued by Wagner. He found a new way of presenting music on stage and telling stories (which often had wide-ranging mythical and spiritual function).’  

The influence of Wagner can clearly be seen in some of the most surprising of places: the rock music of the 1960s and 70s. It is easy to see how the 19th-century music-dramas of Wagner influenced the glam-rock and rock operas in their grand scale, theatrical brevity and emotional directness.  

The music of Wagner is often highly complex, however the basic musical building blocks used are quite simple and easily discernable as to their dramatic purpose and meaning. The simple four chord structure of the pop-rock song also has a unique directness that can easily describe mood, feeling or character. Townshend notes: ‘One thing that might surprise people is that I believe [the rock opera form] gives me a chance to embrace the wonderful – but apparently limited – pop-rock song form more fully. A great rock or pop song can stand on its own. Its function is to grapple with whatever issue is on the table, but bring release, empowerment and mutual acceptance in the audience. So, when you string a bunch of songs together to help tell a story, you are really just starting where we all spend most of our time in any case, in one of the many days of our lives. One way to appreciate our own ‘story’ is often to immerse ourselves in other stories. This is what art has always done I suppose.’   

Townshend first toyed with the idea of creating rock operas with A Quick One While He’s Away (1966) and Rael (1967). With the creation of Tommy in 1969, Townshend achieved the broad and conceptual work he had imagined. The album quickly became a breakthrough for The Who, reaching No. 2 in the UK album charts and No. 4 in the US, with many singles that stayed at the top of the charts for weeks.  

Leonard Bernstein praised the album, saying its ‘sheer power, invention and brilliance of performance outstrips anything which has ever come out of a recording studio.’ It went on to an operatic debut at Seattle Opera in 1971, then the wild and sprawling Ken Russell film of 1975 and finally reached Broadway in the 1992 musical that Victorian Opera will present, which won five Tony Awards. It is rare for one piece of music to iterate so many successful versions - from recording to musical, opera to rock opera, film to stage spectacular, spawning pop hits galore. It paved the way for other mega rock operas such as Chess and Rent, and reformed the musical theatre genre to better embrace pop and rock music styles on stage.  

Popular music has a history of being born in the theatre and The Who’s Tommy shows us that amazing, trendsetting music can tell great stories and make gripping theatre. 

Victorian Opera performs The Who’s Tommy from 22 February – 1 March 2022 at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda. 

Extra: Enjoy listening to The Who's Tommy playlist via Spotify!

By Evan Lawson