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Somewhere over time, in between spoken lore and salty Facebook statuses, the rock opera was the en vogue way to recount epic stories. While the trend might have seen its peak of popularity around The Who’s eccentric Tommy, the opus still weasels its way into certain music scenes when some maestro builds enough ambition. For Lainey Schooltree, singer and keyboardist in art-rock outfit Schooltree, the desire to pen a rock opera has been ruminating inside her since she was 13. It just took some prompting from fans to get her rolling — and a Live Arts Boston grant from The Boston Foundation didn’t hurt, either.
After the release of the band’s first album, Rise, listeners wanted the record to be turned into a rock opera, but Schooltree had other plans.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m gonna do that, I should do it for real.’ Start from the beginning, write a great original story, deliberately compose music as essential parts of a whole piece — which ended up being a lot harder than I thought,” she says.
Four years later, Schooltree debut their second album and rock opera Heterotopia this Friday (March 31) at Oberon in Harvard Square. Honing in on the metaphysical journey of main character Suzi, Heterotopia shares some common themes with the rock operas that inspired Schooltree when she was a teenager.
“I loved the sweeping narrative and emotional journey of albums like Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy. They share some similarities with Heterotopia, especially the creation and destruction of a hero,” Schooltree adds. “Like Tommy, Heterotopia’s main character Suzi has an affliction that initially torments her, then becomes her salvation — in Suzi’s case, being a ghost. But while Tommy becomes an extroverted messianic figure who’s eventually disavowed by his followers, Suzi is on an internal journey, lost in a parallel world on a quest to reclaim her body, and pays a high price.”
In the process of writing and recording Heterotopia, lots of high school psychology and literature lessons resurfaced as Schooltree discovered the unique challenges that come with writing a rock opera instead of a “normal” album. When crafting Heterotopia, Schooltree delved into Tolkien, Dante, Plato, and Jung to do research for the plot of the story, while the opera’s title is borrowed from philosophy Michel Foucault’s considerations of utopia and dystopia. Considering the opera’s vast influences, Schooltree describes the Heterotopia as a metaphysical fantasy with romantic and 20th century classical influences.
“Heterotopia needed consideration of the whole at every stage of writing. Rock opera is an abstract medium; there’s not a lot of room for traditional exposition, like you might see in a musical, if you want the vibe and mystery of rock music,” Schooltree explains. “Telling an engaging story through songs is a challenge, especially with no dialogue. Each song has to clearly convey a piece of the puzzle, along with its emotional content. There can’t be diversion from the story. I researched story structures with the aim of creating a strong narrative that could stand on its own, with mythological imagery and recurring symbols.”
The album also features a book that shows Suzi’s story, which will be released physically and digitally later this year. Using panels to map out scenes from each part of the story, Schooltree collaborated with Amanda Watkins, who illustrated the book in an art-nouveau graphic novel style.
“Some of the most significant experiences I’ve had with the music I love have been sitting down and listening to a record while looking at the album artwork, reading the liner notes and imagining the story behind the music,” she adds. “I wanted to make the full libretto available with the album to recreate that experience for listeners.”
Put together, Heterotopia takes form as a live experience, a recorded album, and an illustrated tale. At Oberon this Friday, the live performance of the album will take the audience inside a 3-D interactive light sculpture video installation by digital artist and designer Sam Okerstrom-Lang. Paired with the heady psychological themes, Heterotopia is a lot to take in at once — but then again, Schooltree never really intended for it to be any other way.
“I think of this project as an existential survival guide, exploring the idea that reality is an illusion, which can be hard to accept,” Schooltree says. “But the fact that it’s an illusion means it’s malleable and we can shape it.”