Popular Music



Bohemian rhapsodies: operatic influences on rock music


KEN McLEOD 

Abstract

Opera and operatic images have invaded nearly all aspects of popular culture. Films (even silent films), radio, television, literature and numerous other media have all, to one degree or another, appropriated either actual opera or operatic devices and conventions. One important realm of popular culture that has appeared relatively immune to operatic influence, however, is rock music. Though several studies have illustrated the impact of ‘classical’ instrumental music on heavy metal and pop music, no serious scholarship has as yet explored the considerable influence exerted by opera, and its conventions, on various forms of rock music (Aledort 1985; McClary and Walser 1990; Walser 1992; Covach 1997). This essay examines the various manifestations of opera in rock music with particular concentration on works by Queen, Nina Hagen, Klaus Nomi and Malcolm McLaren that employ specific instances of operatic vocality or borrowing. Such opera–rock fusions are often predicated upon the transgression of conventional musical boundaries and often reflect an analogous rejection of traditional cultural boundaries surrounding sexual orientation, gender and class. Long overlooked, recognising opera's cross-relations with rock offers new insights into the postmodern blurring of traditional distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and broadens our understanding of both genres.