Opera, in the purest meaning of the word defines a work of a dramatic nature, in acts, primarily set to music. When looking at it this way, one might think of opera. One might think of ballet. The definition we just gave you describes every musical we have ever seen.
So, over the years, live performances that tell a story with music could be the description of many genres. For the sake of this list, we would like to focus on a popular style of music that, while younger than the traditional opera, rocks and has incredible staying power.
1. Jesus Christ Superstar
This rock opera, that grew popular in the year 1970, is a depiction of the seven days Jesus lived before his crucifixion. Judas, the traitor, is concerned that Jesus is becoming too powerful and the Romans are planning on murdering him. The higher ups in the Jewish community agree that he is causing too much trouble and should be stopped.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to find it filled with people begging for his help. The only time he can find peace from everyone’s prayers is with Mary Magdalene. In the meantime, Judas betrays Jesus to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver. The final blow is the fatal kiss Judas bestows upon Jesus just before he is seized and ultimately crucified.
Of course, the subject matter doesn’t necessarily “rock” but the music does.
2. Joe’s Garage
In Joe’s Garage, Frank Zappa’s rock opera tells the tale of Joe as told by the narrator the Central Scrutinizer. Joe starts a rock band out of his garage and can’t seem to find the right woman. He gets swindled out of his money by a fake religion, and is finally thrown in prison.
Once he is released from jail Joe finds himself in a hellish society where music is now illegal. Joe is pushed deep into the depths of insanity. This crucially acclaimed work explores drug use, explicit sexual activities among other adult themes.
Of course, guitars are a definitive instrument and this opera utilizes them to their full extent. It was a pioneer of xenochrony, which utilizes past recordings. It is said that Zappa’s son Dweezil calls his father’s guitar solo on “Watermelon in Easter Hay” the best he had ever played.
3. The Wall
This rocking opera is the story of “Pink”, a rock star whose thirst for drugs is unquenchable. He feels he needs them to perform and he longs to become comfortably numb. The story starts when he the child of an overly protective and possessive mother. He also has to deal with the dominant teachers at his school who attempted to stifle his creativity.
All of these obstacles prompt Pink to build a theoretical wall around him to feel protected. Yet the wall becomes overwhelming and he finds that it shuts him out from life.
Most of the songs in this classic rock opera are so iconic a great deal of the world’s population can recognize them within a few bars. Several tunes hit the top of the charts when it was released.
In The Who’s most famous rock opera Nora Walker finds out her fighter pilot husband is presumed dead in WWII. More tragically, he is killed while she is pregnant with their son. When the boy is born she names him Tommy. Tommy goes to camp and Mrs. Walker meets Frank whom she subsequently marries.
Yet, Tommy’s father, Captain Walker reappears one day and Tommy witnesses his father’s murder by his stepfather. His mother tells him he must never speak of it and Tommy suffers by becoming blind, deaf, and dumb. His only solace is in a pinball machine where he is a natural wizard.
Tommy becomes famous for his pinball follies and in some ways a God to those that follow him. The movement that surrounds him grows to cultish levels and Tommy believes his is the savior for these people.
This iconic rock opera also has several songs that have become hits for The Who.
5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Set in East Berlin this rock opera centers around Hansel Schmidt who is a fan of rock music. He meets an American soldier, Luther, and they fall in love. They want to marry but the laws require them to be a man and a woman. To solve this obstacle Hansel has a sex change with the help of their mother.
In a bad turn of events doctor botches surgery and Hedwig is left deformed between the legs to a one-inch angry piece of skin. The lovers move to Kansas but soon after Luther abandons Hedwig for a man. Coincidentally, this abandonment occurs on the same day the Berlin wall is dismantled.
Hedwig meets troubled teenager Tommy Speck and falls in love with him. They start a band and eventually Tommy leaves Hedwig to become a star with songs Hedwig wrote.
6. A Hard Day’s Night
The Fab Four are on their way to London where they are scheduled to perform on the television. In the meantime, we go along for the ride while they outrun fans, go to rehearsals and press conferences, and sit in their hotel. When they do get a little time to themselves they find that they cannot escape the mobs of love struck fans that attack them wherever they go.
Ringo jeopardizes their television performance while Paul’s grandfather comes along for the musical ride. Yet Mr. McCartney causes more trouble than Ringo and the other boys want.
As with other operas that rock on our list, this too has a number of chart topping songs like “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
7. The Lamb Lies Down
This postmodern rock opera, created and recorded by the band Genesis, is centered in New York City with our main character Rael. When he sees a lamb lying down on Broadway it affects him deeply. He starts to walk and comes upon a dark cloud that engulfs him when he is bombarded by images until he is wakened in a cave underground.
Rael is taken through a musical journey filled with red-carpeted corridors and falling rocks. He meets the likes of snake creatures and men of a bizarre nature. Eventually Rael dissolves to join all that surrounds him.
The Lamb Lies Down had mixed reviews after its debut on Broadway in 1974, yet as the years have gone on the talent in it has been recognized by critics. This rock opera explores the themes of split personalities, mythology, consumerism, and the sexual revolution.
Japanese solo artist Gackt created our next rock opera. It tells the tale of Yoshitsune, during the Heian period, who is part of a group called Mononofu. Each member has a super natural power ranging from strength, defeat monsters, and even heal the injured.
All of the members seem to have a paranormal ability except for Yoshitsune. His friends believed he hadn’t discovered his ability yet when, in reality, Yoshitsune hid his power from them.
9. American Idiot
Trio Johnny, Will, and Tunny are the main characters of this rock opera written by American punk band Green Day. The trio is sick of the suburban life. They run away to the city where Johnny begins his love affair with drugs and a not so stable woman.
Tunny is wounded in the army while Will retreats back to suburbia. There Will and his pregnant girlfriend become what they feared most, suburbanites. Each member of the original trio struggles with where their lives have gone and what they have lost.
Of course, the songs are rocking which is why this opera got such positive reviews. Of course, the major radio stations till play songs from this work.
10. Operation Mindcrime
Nikki is unconscious in the hospital. He has lost many of his memories in the beginning of this rock opera. Rapidly Nikki begins to remember his drug addiction and his frustration with society and the disbursement of wealth in our society.
Hating the societal corruption Nikki is an easy target for recruitment into a secret organization bent on revolution. Dr. X heads this organization and trains Nikki to become an assassin. The word “mindcrime”, when spoken, puts Nikki into a trance where Dr. X can control him.
Nikki cannot remember any of this yet he is arrested for murdering his own friend Sister Mary. They hospitalize Nikki in the mental ward and then we loop back to the beginning.