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So You Didn’t Realize an Opera Could be Popular?

by Keith Gatling | 12 months ago

I can't believe I didn't think of this until now...when it was too late. But then again, I didn't really think about it until my daughter told me last week about how Andrew Lloyd Weber was making one of his shows free to watch on YouTube each weekend, and that this past weekend's show was the 2012 Arena Tour production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, which we watched.

Now, this show has been around for so long now...50 years, in fact...and had become such a Lenten tradition in many places; including Syracuse, which had productions running at the old Salt City playhouse for roughly 25 years; that it's hard for many of us to remember, or imagine, that there was a time when this show was considered controversial. But it was.

Why?

It all comes down to the music, and what's considered "appropriate" for either religious use or to tell a religious story.

If you were with me for one of our in-person sessions, you'll remember me saying that the technical definition of an opera is any theatrical work where all the parts are sung, and none are spoken. You might also remember my saying that an oratorio is similar to an opera, but that the parts are merely sung by the choir, and not acted out. This form was created to get around English laws against performing operas during Lent...laws that didn't work well for composers like Handel, who would lose out on six weeks worth of income with nothing on stage during that time.
And, if you were with us, you may also remember hearing me say that based on the technical definition of what an opera is, pretty much everything that Andrew Lloyd Webber has written, even though we consider it to be musical theater, is an opera. In fact, by that same definition, Hamilton is also an opera.
But why don't we see them as such?

For the same reason that Superstar was so controversial when it first came out in 1970...they use popular music styles.

Jesus Christ Superstar as it was first presented as a concept album in 1970, and before it was put on stage, belonged to a particular genre of music known as a passion oratorio, which is an oratorio about the last days of Jesus, up to the crucifixion. There are many well known passion oratorios. John Stainer wrote one called...The Crucifixion, which featured the piece God So Loved the World that I mentioned a few weeks ago. Before him, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the more famousSt Matthew Passion. No one had any problems with these because they used the "appropriate" type of music for a religious subject...classical music. It was considered serious music for a serious subject. For some reason the idea of using a popular style of music for religious subjects, or having a composer known for popular works write a religious one, was considered "sacrilegious." This is amusing when you consider that the melody to the old hymn Onward Christian Soldiers was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who with W.S. Gilbert wrote many popular light operas, including The Pirates of Penzance and The HMS Pinafore.
But no matter. To many people there was church music, and there was popular music, and never the twain should meet.

In fact, what we now know of as Black Gospel was controversial at first because it was too similar to jazz, which, to many religious people, was "the devil's music."
Now I think you can see where we're heading with this, and why Superstar was so controversial at first. To many, rock music was also "the devil's music", but louder. It was the music of gyrating hips and sweaty bodies close together. To set the story of the last days of Jesus to that kind of music was unthinkable.

And then people started listening to it. Actually listening to it. Getting past the style of music and listening to the words and the story that was being told. They started noticing that young people were paying attention to this story being told to the kind of music they loved, and not the music of "old dead guys."

And many of them loosened up about it. Maybe they didn't embrace it, but they loosened up. They decided that maybe you weren't restricted to using classical music for religious subjects after all. Of course...anyone who listens to Country Gospel could've told them that.Now, 50 years later, those kids who first heard the concept album in 1970 are parents and grandparents of people who just know Jesus Christ Superstar as a classic that gets dragged out every year around Easter, and will go on for years to come.