Like a traditional opera, a rock opera is a dramatic work in which almost all of the lines are sung. Unlike a traditional operas that rely on classical music, rock operas use rock music to tell their stories. They often begin as conceptual albums that are then adapted to stage plays. Most popular in the late 1960s through the 1970s, arguably the two most famous rock operas are Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tommy by the band The Who.
There are two main types of rock operas: the symbolic and the full. The symbolic rock opera contains no cast and exists on an audio recording only. These kinds of rock operas are usually released by a band or a singer, and include such examples as Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink Floyd's The Wall. Encompassing both visual as well as auditory elements, full rock operas contain a cast and are performed as a play. Whether symbolic or full, to be considered a rock opera, however, the work must have clear characters and tell a story.
Though the style was popular for most of a decade, the creation of these operas was not abundant, and there are relatively few examples of this genre as compared to others. The band The Who is credited for the creation of this style. Their album Tommy follows the life and recovery of a mentally traumatized boy. Released in 1969, it is usually cited as the first example of a rock opera. Tommy began as a symbolic opera, existing only on The Who's album, but was not only later turned into a play, but a movie and a ballet were also created.
Tommy was not, however, the first album The Who released which could be termed a rock opera. In 1966, they created a nine minute long track, sometimes termed a mini rock opera, which was called "A Quick One While He is Away." Its brevity generally discounts it as being as the first rock opera by most, however.
In 1971, Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar was released on Broadway. A fully conceptualized rock opera, it played on Broadway for eight years and spawned a movie. Jesus Christ Superstar tells of the last days of Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion. The tale is told by Judas, the disciple who eventually betrayed him. Though it was originally released in album form only and garnered criticism from some religious institutions, Jesus Christ Superstar is largely thought to be one of the best examples of a rock opera existing.