A night at the opera
April 2012, Massey Hall, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Saturday we made our way to Toronto for Classic Albums Live: Queen—A Night at the Opera. This was our second time seeing a Classic Albums Live presentation, and we were both a little dubious about it, having been underwhelmed by the first. But I just couldn’t resist seeing how they would possibly tackle this very challenging album, “cut for cut, note for note”.
As the liner notes for the show said, “with Queen, the key word was more. More singers. More guitars. More sound.”
So to handle Brian May’s multi-layered guitar sound, they had six guitarists (one of whom focused on the acoustic and the koto). Lead vocal duties were handled by three different singers: one for Freddie’s higher vocal parts (that was a woman), another for his lower range, and one more singer to present Brian and Roger’s vocal leads. And another singer (another woman) who did lead backup.
That not being enough, there was also a full choir. (“We had all of Toronto up here on stage”, the announcer said.) Somehow, though, they did manage with just one each of drums, bass, and piano.
It was really an awesome show. Why did it work so much better than The Beatles one, which felt a bit pointless and lifeless to me?
- You can’t suck the life and fun out of Queen sings by playing them as recorded, because fun is built into the songs. Doing this whole album meant singing a passionate love song to a car, doing an entire musical break on kazoos, and embracing lyrics like “You call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese” and “Thursdays I go waltzing to the zoo”.
- By playing live what were purely studio effects (just four musicians and three singers, massively overdubbed), you aren’t reproducing what was on the record. You are re-creating it. And as an audience, we are hearing it in a new way, for the first time.
- Queen were show-offs, and the musicians managing to pull off all those notes, and guitar chords, and that crazy intricate timing, was truly impressive. We were in the second row, and you could almost see them sweating blood trying to get everything in at the right time, in right pitch. The announcer said it was the most difficult one they’d ever tackled, and I believe it.
The second half featured more Queen songs, some quite well known (We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, Under Pressure, Bicycle Race—complete with bike bells—Somebody to Love), and some not as much (Brighton Rock, Keep Yourself Alive, Get Down Make Love). The show seemed to go by in a flash.