Rockin' the Opera

Josh Hadley

josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | january 2017

The term “rock opera" is one that has lost some of its luster in recent years and yet still holds immense power when utilized correctly.

Opera, in the traditional sense, is normally viewed as something stodgy and elitist and yet when the rock scene appropriated the idea to use the structure of an opera with the attitude of rock 'n' roll, a brilliant new art form was born.

Hollywood had been making musicals for decades but the rock opera was something different ... it was counterculture and flipped the old musicals on their heads.

A rock opera is not the same as a musical despite many common traits. In a musical the story tends to be told musically while in a rock opera the music tends to tell the story. That may seem to be the same thing but the subtlety is there and the results are vastly different. In a musical, the characters will simply break out into song at random times to express emotions or character development, in a rock opera, the songs are related directly to the story and its movement: similar but different. In a rock opera, the music is very nearly a character unto itself with a furiosity and personality equal to that of any of the characters.

The term dates back to 1966 with the British psychedelic band Nirvana (no, not the Nirvana you are thinking of) and was followed by classics the like of “Hair" in 1967 but the rock opera as we know it didn't become a viable sensation until the 1970s with “Jesus Christ Superstar" (1970), “Godspell" (1971), “Grease" (1972), “The Rocky Horror Show" (1973), “Phantom of the Paradise" (1974), “Tommy" (1975) “The Wiz" (1975) and “Evita" (1976). This cluster in such a short period of time had the unfortunate effect of creating a backlash from the public and caused a mild stagnation in the 1980s only to be resurrected in the middle of the 1990s.

Rock operas can also become staples of a particular holiday. Rocky Horror at Halloween, for example, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra at Christmastime. The TSO, as they are known, are played endlessly throughout the month of December and offer an island of intense contemplation within the sea of mind numbing saccharine Christmas music we are all subjected to every holiday season – a brilliant mix of classical styling and instruments seamlessly blended with the hard edge of rock guitars, booming bass and thundering drums. These things should not socialize as well as they do, but TSO makes it work. It is arena rock at its most commercial, TSO was once described by The Washington Post as "Pink Floyd meets Yes and The Who at Radio City Music Hall."

TSO was recently in Green Bay with their "Ghosts of Christmas Eve" show and it was ominously intense and heartfelt performance. If you have never witnessed TSO live, you should. It's a show that pulls zero punches with its lyrical interplay of insanely choreographed numbers, video components, flames. If you only have heard TSO on the radio, seeing them live is a real experience.

Formed in 1996 by ex-members of the '80s heavy metal band Savatage ("Hall of the Mountain King" was their biggest hit) and now featuring over 40 band members, singers and on-stage guests (not to mention the hundreds of personnel behind the scenes) TSO has become a certifiable brand.

Releasing some nine albums over the years and performing around the country (not to mention endless radio play) TSO is also a Philanthropic organization, donating $1 from every ticket sale to a charity in each city they visit and they sell quite a few tickets. In Green Bay they performed two shows over one night and sold out within a day, packing both shows.

TSO is a true rock opera show with the passion and zealotry required to give the audience the best entertainment possible. They also change up the playlist regularly; if you see them one year, the next year will be a different show. Sure they will play some of the same staples each season ("Christmas Eve Sarajevo" for instance) but within a mixture of new songs and a new story. In 2016 it was the aforementioned "Ghosts of Xmas Eve" and 2017 will be something new.

TSO is something to be experienced.

Other recommended rock operas:

“Jesus Christ Superstar"

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show"

“Pink Floyd – The Wall"

“Little Shop of Horrors"

“The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend"



“The Toxic Avenger" (Rock opera version)

A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.

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