Opera, defined as "a type of theatre in which most or all of the characters sing most or all of the time" [ref.] was invented in Italy in the sixteenth century and spread to the rest of Europe in the following century. It was initially associated with royal courts and still has a reputation as an art form favoured by the wealthy, but throughout its history has influenced popular music. With the rise of the impresario, opera was the first form of music to be organised on a commercial basis and presented to a paying audience. Leading singers commanded large salaries and gained international reputations, and sheet music helped popularise opera arias - the first hit tunes. In the nineteenth century, famous opera singers were the first popular artists to go on large-scale American tours, drawing huge crowds to the newly-built opera houses of American cities. At the same time, opera became a genuinely popular form in some European countries, especially Italy.

The early recording industry favoured opera singers, whose powerful voices overcame the limitations of the primitive studio techniques; the most famous of these artists being Enrico Caruso. He was the first of many opera singers - often Italians or Italian-Americans - to make the "crossover" to commercial success during the twentieth century. Others included Mario Lanza, who became a star of records and films in the 1950s, recording for RCA Victor at the same time as Elvis Presley, who admired him. While the rock generation of the 1960s found opera old-fashioned and snobbish and the repertoire of most opera houses included few works written after 1900, ambitious pop musicians began to toy with the concept of rock operas. The term rock opera (see the Wikipedia article) is now applied to a wide range of extended or thematically-linked compositions; the best-known of these are The Who's "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall".

Links to Peel


Peel with his mother Joan ("Hat") Ravenscroft, both of them wearing evening dress for a visit to the opera at Glyndebourne

John Peel had an upper-middle-class family background, his parents belonged to the social circles which produced many British opera lovers. He was doubtless exposed to opera at school, and in an interview [ref] mentioned that he had received LP box sets of operas as Christmas presents, in the hope that he would develop a liking for the musical form. He admitted that this didn't work, that opera was one of the few styles of music he never liked, and he does not appear to have ever featured any mainstream opera in his playlists. Despite this, a photograph in Margrave Of The Marshes shows a youthful Ravenscroft/Peel with his mother Joan ("Hat") Ravenscroft, both of them wearing evening dress for a visit to the opera at Glyndebourne. It is a rare picture of Peel in formal clothes, although he appears to be wearing winklepicker shoes. Glyndebourne is renowned for being a social event as much as a music venue (Sir Denis Forman, in his A Night At The Opera, p.808,, describes its audience as being "strong on Snobs, Corporates and Glitzies, and weak on Casuals" - he is referring to ordinary operagoers rather than football hooligans), and it is hard to imagine Peel feeling at home there.

Yet his wife Sheila liked opera; in the booklet accompanying the Trikont Records collection The Pig's Big 78s, she recounts that

...opera was the only music John disliked intensely. He occasionally came to the opera with me just to do me a favour. I could see him sitting there really bored. One of his brothers really likes opera. John said that he disliked it because it was played at him when he was younger. He did some very good imitations of opera singers.

Peel was more encouraging to the rock operas which began to appear in the late 1960s. Along with every other DJ on Radio London he played Keith West's 1967 hit single "Excerpt From A Teenage Opera", although composer Mark Wirtz was unable to complete his project and there was no album release until 1996. On Radio One, Peel featured other concept albums, or rock operas, such as Nirvana(2)'s "Story of Simon Simopath", The Pretty Things' "S.F. Sorrow" and the Appletree Theatre's "Playback". He also played two bands whose names referenced opera, as a sign of the times - Britain's Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera and Earth Opera, a band formed by American folk-bluegrass musicians Peter Rowan and David Grisman, which recorded two LPs for Elektra Records. The Bonzo Dog Band lampooned this trend with their 1969 session track "Brain Opera".

On Night Ride in 1969 Peel enthused over The Who's "Tommy", saying he thought it superior to the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Other albums he liked which have been categorised as rock operas included The Kinks' "Arthur, (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire)" and its successors, "Preservation Acts 1 and 2", although these received mixed critical receptions. David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust" was also seen by some as a rock opera. Fairport Convention's 1971 album "Babbacombe" Lee has been called the first folk-rock opera, because it narrates the life story of a historical figure, John "Babbacombe" Lee, "the man they could not hang". Peel played extracts from it on Top Gear. Folk singer Peter Bellamy, a Peel session artist in the 1970s, wrote a folk ballad opera, "The Transports". A record of it was issued in 1977, featuring other Peel session regulars such as Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, June Tabor and The Watersons.

However, as the 1970s progressed, there were plenty of opera-like extended works which Peel did not play - above all, the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber[1] to which he took a particular dislike. It was these and other, more conventional works such as Jeff Wayne's "War Of The Worlds" which were most commercially successful, and Peel began to direct his attention elsewhere - to the short, sharp, energetic singles of the punk era. Nevertheless, when Pink Floyd released "The Wall" in 1979, he played it at length in his shows - but it was the last rock opera to be featured. He does not seem to have played the rock-opera fusions of Queen's Freddie Mercury (with Montserrat Caballé) and Elvis Costello (with Anne-Sofie von Otter) and ignored the convention which developed after the success of Luciano Pavarotti's version of "Nessun Dorma" as theme of the 1990 World Cup, of opera stars singing at major sports events and doing open-air, rock-style stadium or festival gigs in front of big audiences.

For all the eclecticism of his shows, most remained an opera-free zone, although a track from Billy Cowie's production of Beethoven In Love featuring an opera singer singing "Josephine Von Brunswick" was played on his 02 June 1987 show. Laurie Anderson's 1981 "O Superman", which he played on its release, was inspired by the aria "O Souverain" from Jules Massenet's 1885 opera "Le Cid", as Anderson later admitted. And when Peel introduced an episode of Radio 4's series Down Your Way in 1986 from the Suffolk village of Combs, the famous "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's opera "Il Trovatore" was played after the DJ had interviewed a local blacksmith.

A box set of LPs by Mario Lanza appears in his Record Collection.


  1. Before he became world-famous, Lloyd Webber was an occasional letter-writer to Melody Maker. In November 1969, responding to a controversy over what whas the first pop opera, he wrote, "Surely, the first pop opera was John Gay's "Beggar's Opera" which was such a success in the 18th century, rivalled perhaps by Monteverdi's "Orfeo" which hit the scene in 1607..."[1] .

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