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At last, a rock opera that sings

In 'Monkey: Journey to the West,' Chen Shi-Zheng and Damon Albarn have created a spectacle for a pop audience. In "Monkey: Journey to the West," Chen Shi-Zheng and Damon Albarn have created a spectacle for a pop audience. (manchester international festival via associated press)

MANCHESTER, England -- The Broadway and film versions of "Tommy" probably had bigger budgets, but "Monkey: Journey to the West," with music by Damon Albarn, is surely the most artistically ambitious rock opera yet.

Rock opera has had a spotty history, but by now the barriers between high and low art, between classical and pop music, have been thoroughly demolished. In fact, rockers are welcomed into the opera house and concert hall like never before. Meanwhile, classical composers appropriate from the pop world like crazy. Once-traditional opera companies and classical record labels, seeking new audiences (and sources of revenue), have greeted the pop invasion with open arms.

Deutsche Grammophon has released a rock opera by Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori, "Welcome to the Voice," in which Sting, Robert Wyatt, and Elvis Costello mingle with Barbara Bonney and other opera singers. Freddie Mercury, that most overtly operatic of rockers, once hooked up with soprano Montserrat Caballe for the gloriously over-the-top "Barcelona." Caballe is retired and Mercury is dead, but "Barcelona" lives on; it was just revived for a recording by the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra with a Sicilian rock singer and a Dutch soprano.

Another opera-buff pop star, Rufus Wainwright, has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to come up with something.

The only problem with all this is that very little rock opera is opera, and very, very little of it is any good. In the end, pop musicians are songsmiths, and songwriters typically have not had an easy time with opera.

Rockers can take comfort, however, in the fact that classical composers have had no more luck when they try to write in a pop style. John Adams wrestled with the format in his song-based, sort-of-rock-opera, "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky." A couple of songs work, but his style is too complex and the score is thus far his only unsatisfying stage work.

"Welcome to the Voice" and "Monkey" edge closer to what is commonly thought of as opera while retaining a rock identity.

"Voice" gets off to a terrible start with a pretentious libretto by Teodori, a French Freudian analyst. A steelworker, Dionysos, contracts the opera bug. His Marxist fellow hard-hats preach the gospel of Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, but Dionysos (sung by Sting) has ears only for the ghosts of "Carmen," "Butterfly," and "Norma."

Nieve's music, much of it faceless, is forced to contain pages of ludicrous text. For the band, Nieve is joined by a string quartet and a couple of improvisers -- wind player Ned Rothenberg and guitarist Marc Ribot -- but text, not music, is the driving force.

Albarn is a songwriter, having fronted such popular British bands as Blur and (the animated) Gorillaz. He also has branched out into film scoring, working with Michael Nyman on "Ravenous."

Directed and conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng, who has overseen productions at the American Repertory Theatre and for the Handel & Haydn Society, "Monkey" is spectacle created for a pop audience. The night I saw the production, which opened the first Manchester International Festival, there was a steady stream of attendees parading in and out for beer and greasy, crunchy food.

The story is a classic Chinese text about a trickster monkey seeking enlightenment. Animation and designs by Jamie Hewlett delightfully lighted up the stage. A troop of Chinese acrobats dazzled. And the music, which included instruments from lands wide and far, was another level of decoration. Arias were catchy songs. Attractive instrumental licks moved the action along.

Only in the last moments did Albarn take some effective baby steps toward ensemble writing. But it was a start, and the opera seems destined for wide dissemination. It is moving on to Paris and Berlin (and perhaps an American venue will pick it up). An album will be released.

So after 40 years of trying, rock's finally got an opera, if one that remains rudimentary. The floodgates for a genuine new genre are wide open, and the promise seems realistic.