The Who: It's only rock'n'roll

The classical writer Jessica Duchen has recently become acquainted with The Who's rock operas 'Tommy' and 'Quadrophenia'. They certainly rock - but are they really opera?

The New Grove Dictionary of Music, music academia's Bible, gives the following definition of opera: "The generic term for musical dramatic works in which the actors sing some or all of their parts. Opera is a union of music, drama and spectacle." Its most extreme manifestation is Wagner's ideal, the Gesamtkunstwerk - "complete art work", combining music, drama and spectacle to the highest degree.

More generally, when you go to an opera, you expect to see a good story and believable characters, with music that is appropriate, inspired, sophisticated and well performed. You hope to come out moved and uplifted.

A purist, of course, would have plenty of objections to calling Tommy and Quadrophenia operas. For a start, in most operas, you find a variety of musical structures: dramatic scenas, choruses, love duets, solo arias and ensembles where characters simultaneously express different viewpoints. The singers have to act, staying in their roles for the duration.

But the majority of the songs in Tommy and Quadrophenia are simply songs. They progress, in Tommy, one after the other without speech; telling a story, but without the wide variety you'd expect in a "real" opera. In these staged versions, unlike the feature films, the members of the band aren't in costume, and they convey different viewpoints as the stories unfold. The guest artists do adopt characters: in Tommy, Patti Labelle sings the Acid Queen, Billy Idol the bullying Cousin Kevin, and there are guest spots for Phil Collins and Elton John; Quadrophenia features Billy Idol as the Ace Face.

On the other hand, Townshend - who'd penned operas and studied orchestration, but didn't expect The Who to perform such things - lets rip when opportunity allows. Tommy's recurring plaint, "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me", is as raw and vulnerable as anything you'll hear in Covent Garden, though probably not every singer could bring it off as convincingly as Daltrey. And Tommy's overture is as fizzy and galvanising as any Rossini.

Opera traditionally deals with emotion on a grand scale. Tommy and Quadrophenia both involve powerful emotions, springing from a shared underlying theme: the legacy of a generation's wartime traumas upon its children. Unlike many operas other than Wagner's, words and music originate (mainly) with the same creator. Tommy's plot lets it down a bit, requiring major suspension of disbelief: a child witnesses the murder of his father by his mother's lover, turns blind, deaf and dumb in consequence, becomes a pinball champion, then is cured by a smashed mirror and turns into a pseudo-Messiah who nonetheless remains alienated by his experience.

Quadrophenia is more internalised: most of it takes place inside Jimmy's muddled head. Yet this adolescent anti-hero's spiritual journey involves emotions that run so high, with imagery so strong and archetypal, that Townshend borrows directly from Wagner's Das Rheingold to depict a boat journey.

Wagner writes about gods building Valhalla, Townshend about an alienated teenager running away to Brighton; yet their protagonists are tormented to the limits of their experience, whether through godhood or through drink and drugs. Wagner's monumental power matches the myths behind his stories; Townshend's rock soundworld fits Jimmy's angry internal agony to perfection.

It's in Quadrophenia that Townshend really crosses the divide. The four different aspects of Jimmy's mind are each represented by a leitmotif, a Wagnerian association of idea with musical theme, which join together at the climax when Jimmy is stranded on a rock in the sea and experiences his spiritual epiphany. Meanwhile, there's a Gesamtkunstwerk idea, too: in this version, Jimmy's narration is portrayed on film, images of the sea return constantly, and a lengthy instrumental interlude accompanies a montage of newsreel footage, tracing the evolution of teenagers against a background of the Blitz, Hiroshima and The Beatles. What's more, Quadrophenia's subject matter - growing up - is timeless.

In some ways, Quadrophenia is more successfully operatic than many "official" operas of the same time, not least because it's a sophisticated fusion of art forms, primarily well-wrought music, with something powerful to communicate. Townshend reached his audience by writing about alienation; but his classical contemporaries, experiencing alienation themselves, frequently forgot their audience altogether.

Stockhausen's operas (such as Donnerstag aus Licht, 1978) are too navel-gazingly bizarre to expect much uptake. Michael Tippett, who wrote his own libretti, sometimes created psychological stories so convoluted that they can remain baffling even if you like the music.

But The Who's rock operas connect with a public wide enough to include classical-music journalists. We were all teenagers once. We've been there too, even if we were practising three instruments at the time. And we love good music, well performed, whatever its genre. Tommy and Quadrophenia are as characteristic of their era as any opera by Mozart or Wagner.

Labels can be deceptive. Quadrophenia may not be a traditional opera, but it's a marvellous band performing terrific music that tells a strong story, blending song, drama and spectacle in a manner of its own. Moved? Exhilarated? Uplifted? You bet. Rock opera? Yeah. Why not?

'The Who - Tommy and Quadrophenia Live with Special Guests' is released on 7 November by Warner Music Vision

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?