“Rock operas” aren’t thin on the ground by any means, but with one exception these attempts uniformly fall short. Rock is generally focused on the instruments, often lead guitar and drums. Their heros are “axes” and “skins” as they call them, and the job of singing is all too often left to the one member of the band who sounds least bad, or else it’s shared around democratically like an unfortunate chore. At best, voices are often considered a “chick thing” or else somewhat cheap and commercial.
Because of this, the rock opera is often a contradiction, since an opera isn’t quite a “play in music” despite its initial characterization as such in Peri and Monteverdi’s day. Opera is a play in voice — not just a musical story but specifically a sung one. The voice must be at the heart of the music, and few rock bands have made the musical choice to put a voice at their centers, with limited exceptions.
One of those exceptions was the popular rock band Styx during the 1970s and 1980s, which boasted not only excellent songwriters and musicians, but a lead singer with a strong, high voice and some charisma, and a very strong bent toward glitzy theater. Taken together with a healthy dose of melodrama, these qualities resulted in (in my humble opinion) the only rock opera to truly achieve operatic status even without sung recitative, “Kilroy Was Here.” It’s not a perfect work by any means — any more than Peri’s “Euridice” was in 1600. And lead singer Dennis DeYoung’s voice, while excellent for rock, does not approach either the hall-filling power and icy purity of Freddie Mercury nor the baritone-like belt and near-obsessive refusal to go off the center of the note of Steve Perry.
It is, however, a clear third in the triumvirate of Rock Altinos, the old-school countertenors using the pre-Alfred Deller definition of men who sing in the alto register in a full and natural chest voice (or nearly in DeYoung’s case, more of a half-and-half along the lines of Art Garfunkel than a true natural male alto). A pretty, clean instrument with good penetration and ring, DeYoung’s voice and his love of the concept album (the spiritual inheritor of Baroque opera) goes a long way to making “Kilroy” succeed where most other rock operas have failed to make a dent. Good pieces of work they may be; I know many people who love “Tommy,” and much of the music from it is excellent. But “opera” isn’t quite the right word for it.
For many people my age, the story of Kilroy is one the broad strokes of which we know already: rock singer Robert Kilroy (full name: Robert Orin Charles Kilroy, or R.O.C.K.) was framed for murder and put in jail by a totalitarian government determined to do away with rock music. It’s important to keep in mind that, at the time, many rock bands were feeling a bit persecuted during the heyday of evangelical types insisting that they had found backward satanic messages inserted in the songs of most popular bands (and uncertain of the legal ramifications of any potential legislative action). The inoffensive Styx was among the top targets for this sort of accusation.
A young rebel named Jonathan Chance (lead guitarist Tommy Shaw) intercepts coded messages from Kilroy after the latter escapes from jail, and the two meet at the eponymous Paradise Theater where Kilroy recounts the tragic tale to Chance. Midway through the story, the scene shifts to a live performance, and the band whose history we are following becomes simply Styx in concert.
The conclusion, with Kilroy bequeathing a guitar to Chance and a reprise of the well-known “Mr. Roboto,” is played out before the concert audience itself, which has become part of the story.
The general plot is as loose and campy as any during the heyday of Baroque opera, and the artifice fades away completely during the concert, reasserting itself periodically. The musicianship is excellent, and with the exception of Shaw who was not pleased with the theatrical direction that the band had taken, the other band members throw themselves enthusiastically into their assigned parts, with the brothers Panozzo playing both prisoners and brownshirted thugs and guitarist James Young as the face of censorship, the dictator Dr. Righteous.
Just as in the heyday of the surgically altered high male voice though, the vocal soloist is at center stage for most of the story (although he does not dominate the concert unduly). It’s this that makes “Kilroy Was Here” most like the operas that it takes after. Again, DeYoung’s is not a trained voice in an operatic sense, but it’s a clear, pretty instrument with respectable power and the range necessary to turn heads. And it’s not every day — certainly not in the world of classical voice! — where the owner of a respectable voice is also a gifted composer with an innate sense of storytelling.
The music consists of the hits that most people today recognize from the album itself plus several from previous albums such as the infectious “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Snowblind,” an anti-drug anthem that was ironically one of the songs said to contain masked nefarious backwards messages. (DeYoung replied to the accusation with the acerbic comment that the band already had its hands full making the music sound right forwards.)
The entire short film, taken from what is obviously an old analog source sadly and thus with all the image quality of an old VHS tape, can be found along with the concert that it leads into on the DVD “Caught in the Act,” together with many promotional videos for older songs by the band before the days when such things were called “music videos” and made to be widely broadcast. The entire package is a great look into the high water mark of an excellent rock band as well as a tantalizing peek into what the world of opera might truly have felt like two and a half centuries ago to audiences in the pit and pigeon loft at the Teatro di San Carlo on Carnival night. Kilroy’s entrance and dramatic reveal would have been the envy of Marchesi and Caffarelli, and every librettist in Italy would have been rushing home to their quills and paper to pen stories of mechanical men and martyred musicians in a world where the government exerted infinitely more control over artistic expression than any rock band could ever have imagined.