Last week, like Parsifal finally reaching the shrine of the Holy Grail, an English rock quartet known as The Who made it to Manhattan's Metropolitan Opera and sold out the house twice in one day. The fateful occasion, twin performances of their so-called rock opera Tommy, was the first time any kind of pop music had ever been heard at the Met. The historic program had been arranged by Rock Promoters Nathan Weiss and Bill Graham, who made the deal with Met General Manager Rudolf Bing. "Perhaps," said Bing, "some of these young people will come back when we do Mozart and Verdi."
Whether they will or not, the two concerts were the absolute apex of the hippie social season. If the kids who turned up were not dressed to the teeth, they were at least dressed to the noses. In addition to the usual headbands, see through tops, togas, bell bottoms and union jack-ets, many of the girls had their noses painted in art nouveau pinks and blues. Bare feet pattered up and down the red-carpeted aisles while the sweet, light, pervasive smell of pot drifted through the darkness toward the ceiling.
Onstage stood a mighty fortress of loudspeakers, looking like one of the barricades in "Il Trovatore." As the thundering music began to jar the building, Met Assistant Manager Francis Robinson cowered inside a soundproof booth at the rear of the hall, touching his fingertips incredulously to the trembling walls. "Feel It," he said. At the end, when the group was booed for refusing to play an encore, Tommy's composer Peter Townshend put the audience down emphatically by filling the hall with a distinctly nonoperatic four-letter word. Bing was more restrained. "I didn't understand a thing about Tommy myself," he said, "but then I don't understand everything about Don Giovanni either."
Things to Come
In truth, Tommy is a creation likely to cause a certain perplexity in the mind as well as in the middle ear. Thematically it is a parable about a boy who grows deaf, dumb and blind after watching his father kill his mother's lover. Because of his exceptional sense of touch, however, he becomes a pinball champion. Later, miraculously cured, he becomes a pinball messiah and finally the leader of a quasi-religious state. When he insists that his followers play pinball with their mouths gagged, their eyes blindfolded, their ears plugged with stoppers - in sum, with his old handicaps - they rebel and overthrow him. Tommy's empire falls into ruins. To the young, who have been known to feel that parents and the leaders of the state are deaf, dumb and blind to them, Tommy has strong symbolic meaning. Yet its arrival at the Met, via the Fillmore East, several European opera houses and a record sale of $2,000,000, is less of a triumph for music than proof of the maxim that if you say something loud enough and long enough, people will believe it.
Tommy is not an opera, of course, but an extended song cycle. It does have its moments: "Pinball Wizard", for example, is explosive, driving, topnotch - hard rock. As a complete piece of musical theater, though, Tommy is pretentious and embarrassing stuff from one of the most gimmick-prone groups in all rock. The Who's favorite pre-Tommy stunt was to smash their guitars, loudspeakers and drums at the end of every set. At the Met, save for their own vaudeville antics onstage (singer Roger Daltrey twirling his mike like a lasso, Peter Townshend playing his guitar with showy windmills of his right arm), there was no drama, no staging, no characterization. So little, in fact, that though The Who played only two-thirds of the complete work at the Met, no one, not even the critics, seemed to notice.
For The young, Tommy strikes a responsive chord not as a living musical drama but as a hopeful sign that pop forms like rock may have the vocabulary and expressive scope to deal with important subjects on a broad symphonic and operatic range. Every troubled society or social group needs its own encouraging myths and fables. From that point of view, for the rock world Tommy is at least a start.