Classic Quadrophenia, part 2


Yesterday I wrote about the experience of singing Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia, including the odd feeling of being a backup singer for some of the biggest names in rock and roll and of being inside a rock concert at normally staid Tanglewood. But what about the work? Did it, well, work?

I should acknowledge, to begin with, that I was unfamiliar with Quadrophenia except by reputation before this all began. I knew “Love Reign O’er Me,” and I had heard Pete Townshend perform “Drowned” in a solo acoustic set as part of the video release of Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. I knew the Mods/Rockers plot and the concept of multiple personal disorder that the title refers to (“Schizophrenic? I’m bleeding quadrophenic“). And I knew about the character of the Ace Face, because Sting played him in the 1979 feature film based on the rock opera.

But the material?

So, first of all, a rock opera isn’t an opera. The songs are songs, not arias. And yet… the musical themes carry from number to number (“Is it me for a moment,” “The Real Me,” and other motifs appear in several tracks, as does the chugging honky-tonk of “5:15”). The emotional arc of the show carries us from Jimmy’s bold statement of theme (“The Real Me” again) through despair and nihilism to a final desperate statement of hope.

And there is a real emotional story at the core, an exploration of what it means to be a man when all the supports for manhood are crumbling around you. Jimmy looks for approval from his father and mother but doesn’t find it. He falls back to the approval of his tribe (“Why should I care if I have to cut my hair? I’ve gotta move with the fashions or be outcast”). He looks at his Mod band idols to realize that they offer nothing more than the fashion he’s already growing disillusioned with (“You declared you would be three inches taller/You only became what we made you”). He takes a manual labor job and realizes that the workers are being abused but won’t stand up to protest (“The Dirty Jobs”: “My karma tells me/You’ve been screwed again/If you let them do it to you/You’ve got yourself to blame/It’s you who feels the pain/It’s you who takes the shame/…You men should remember how you used to fight”). He feels threatened by the changes to his society, the arrival of black immigrants taking jobs and the mechanization affecting even retail jobs (“Helpless Dancer”).

And so he turns to casual sex, and fighting, and ultimately slides into homelessness and despair, and strands himself on a rock in a torrential rainstorm, pleading for love to rain over him in a lyric that has echoes of The Waste Land (as well as the teachings of Pete’s guru Meher Baba).

Lyrically it’s a bleak journey but a fully realized one. Robert Christgau thought so: “… if Townshend’s great virtue is compassion, this is his triumph — Everykid as heroic fuckup, smart enough to have a good idea of what’s being done to him and so sensitive he gets pushed right out to the edge anyway.”

And as a classical crossover work? I think the real challenge that this production faces comes down to sound. For instance, there’s percussion aplenty — various drums including an enormous bass drum, timpani, snare — but if not mixed well you can still get complaints, as we did from one reviewer, that the drums weren’t there. But the visceral punch of the Who orchestration is traded for the grandeur of a full orchestral (and choral) treatment, as heard in “Love Reign O’er Me.”

And the songs are first-class earworms. I’ve had “The Real Me,” “Is It In My Head?,” “5:15” and of course “Love Reign O’er Me” in my head for the better part of two weeks now. With any luck, our rehearsals of the Berlioz Damnation of Faust will finally chase them away. 

Classic Quadrophenia, part 1

At the beginning of the summer I was feeling a little down. I was only doing one performance at Tanglewood with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and while I was really looking forward to singing Mahler’s Second again I was sad not to perform with my friends for the other weekends—especially for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, which I sang with Reilly Lewis twenty years or so ago. But I had business and family travel and so resigned myself to it being a quiet and ordinary summer.

That’s when the email came. “On Saturday, September 2nd, The Who’s Pete Townshend will bring his ‘Classic Quadrophenia’ show to Tanglewood. This show will feature Townshend, Billy Idol, Alfie Boe, the BSO Pops and TFC singers.”

I didn’t even ask. I just checked the calendar and put my name in. A few weeks later, I was dancing when I got the roster and my name was on it.

I suspect that for all classical singers of Generation X and later (and maybe for a few born before me), there’s a part of us that wants to be a rock and roll singer. And while I’m not the biggest fan of the Who, I’ve always had a ton of respect for Pete Townshend’s songwriting — and Billy Idol’s stage presence.

So we started rehearsals last week and by Friday’s orchestra rehearsal we had a show. It was mind-blowing to sing backup with Pete Townshend on tunes like “The Punk and the Godfather,” and to hear his guitar with us on “I’m One.” Even more mind-blowing was watching Billy Idol, looking a great deal like James Marster’s Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), duetting with wundertenor Alfie Boe.

On Saturday, we boarded a bus to Tanglewood, rolled off and got straight to rehearsal on the stage. The main learning from this: the tech part of the rehearsal, as Pete’s sound team figured out how to balance soloists vs. chorus vs. orchestra, was the most important part of the day. As our director noted, they get one shot at balancing sound in an unfamiliar space and have to balance the audibility of quiet instruments like acoustic guitars against the punch of big percussion sections and voices. We even got our own sound check. (See below.)

And then came the performance, and it was amazing. First, Alfie Boe is a force of nature:

Second, I have never seen a Tanglewood audience so excited. They cheered for the opening bell; for the orchestra tuning; at the end of solos. They jumped to their feet and started dancing at various points. It wasn’t a full on rock concert audience—it couldn’t be, given the seats in the Shed—but it was as close as Tanglewood comes.

Last, it was an amazing honor to sing behind these guys. The passion they brought to the stage was unbelievable, and the music still hasn’t left my head.

The Punk and The Godfather #williamsnyderphotography #classicquadrophenia

A post shared by Alfie Boe (@mralfieboe) on

I had a bunch of thoughts about the music itself, but I’ll save that for part II.