A Vagabond existence in sound and tour
Take one-part theatrical spectacle, toss in operatic vocals, add in wind instruments, accordion, violin, upright bass, saxophone, musical saw, sprinkle with a dash of belly dancing and a dollop of Klezmer for seasoning, add a hint of vaudeville, blend it together vigorously, turn it upside down and send it out on a road trip from Portland, Ore., and you have Vagabond Opera.
Much like a brilliant culinary recipe, Vagabond Opera combines a few standard ingredients with custom additives to create a dish best served live.
The six-piece roving ensemble rolls into the Mauch Chunk Opera House, 14 W Broadway, Jim Thorpe, 8 p.m. Feb. 8 for the 15th stop of a 16-date East Coast tour.
It's difficult to ascribe Vagabond Opera to a single genre. Descriptors such as "eclectic" and "quirky" "weird" and "bohemian" have oft been used as a blanket statement of sorts when one is pressed for an immediate summarization of what exactly Vagabond Opera is and does.
Eric Stern, one of the vocalists in the group (he's an operatic tenor), as well as accordion player and founding member, puts it best when he says, "What we do is, I think, the best opera distilled. It is opera stripped down without the behemoth sets nor with the elitism and stuffiness that comes with it. I really think it's opera cut close to the bone. In that way, it almost seems like a rogue opera."
"We're not just musicians staring down at our feet playing music," explains Stern when asked what audiences can expect during a live show. "We're really there to create a journey. That can be an absinthe-tinged journey into Parisian bordellos or it can take us to a Bulgarian wedding.
"I really hope it's close to a little vacation for your brain and your body and the creation of a ritual space for both us and the audience where we build on each other's energy, an endorphin release if you will."
A good primer for the curious as far as the music is concerned is the group's most recent CD, "Sing for your Lives!" The 2011 release contains 11 tracks that lead listener's auditory senses into Vagabond's theater of the absurd.
Of course, the Vagabond Opera experience is not complete until it has been viewed in a live setting.
"We really lead you to one conclusion; which is that live music and theater is really important, valuable, and vital because it's so much fun. We have a couple of really special guests this time around," Stern says enthusiastically.
"We have Ursula Knudsen, who is a French chanteuse from Fishtank Ensemble [which performed at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in September 2012].
"We have Karolina Lux. She is really one of the premier belly dancers of the Northwest and she's a creative force. She and Ursula are both traveling with us. You [the audience] will see feats of vocal and belly dance derring-do, burlesque high wire and cabaret vaudeville."
For all the visual elements in Vagabond's stage performance, Stern is quick to add, "Music is at the heart of it and that is what we make and do best. That's where our emphasis always lies, but I certainly believe in being a showman.
"Just imagine the visual of someone singing tenor while someone else plays the musical saw. There are tableaus that we just create: Just the visuals that are created by a dynamic group of individuals having a musical conversation on stage.
"I started the ensemble because I saw there were things in opera that weren't being touched on. Opera is all about the Western European tradition. But at the same time, why not use our musical skills [all are formally-trained musicians] to snatch Promethean-like anything we wanted from that genre and continue it?
"We were just interested in playing with each other [the members of Vagabond Opera]. We were excited by what we were doing."
Vagabond Opera's embryonic synthesis took form in 2002 in Portland, where the group is based. Stern, a Philadelphia native who calls Portland home, began his formal training as an opera singer and pianist in the City of Brotherly Love before departing for further studies and musical adventures in New York, Paris and New Mexico (where he co-founded the Jewish Theater Project). He has studied the Bulgarian accordion alongside native Bulgarians Milen Slavov and Kalin Kirilov.
"Portland, Oregon, has a great musical community and it's like the musical laboratory here and we are always trying out new forms. There are a lot of 'big name' musicians [in Portland], but no one here takes that seriously. We all end up performing with each other.
"Portland is like this alternate universe," Stern says. "It reminds me of what I've heard about what Paris was like in the 1920s and '30s. We feel like here [in Portland], we are the makers of manners in that we're not following the larger trends."
"I like playing in New York and Philadelphia, but I actually appreciate the smaller places," Stern says about touring. "There's always more of a sense of community. I have no idea the size of Jim Thorpe but I kind of appreciate that it's not a huge city."