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The Province, Feature >>

Vagabond Opera mash-up Easter-Western-Classical-Folk musics

As whimsical as their name may seem Vagabond Opera is indeed a circus for the brain, an aural kaleidoscope. They’re a sextet from Portland, Ore., but have seen the world, and somehow their crazy mash-up of Eastern European-meets-classical-meets-Western music with a great stage show always goes down amazingly well.

This all started back in Philadelphia where group founder Eric Stern grew up hanging at the Wooden Shoe Books shop that his parents helped found and run, an anarchist and radical book store that also sold a great variety of records. While the grownups talked about The Collective he was listening to every album he could get his hands on.

Plus his parents were musical, they met at piano lessons. In his teens and into his 20s Stern also developed a big interest in opera and would study formally in Europe before going on to perform in more than 30 productions like Carmen and La Boheme on stages from Paris to New York.

But he wasn’t afraid to step away from the conventional, co-founding the Jewish Theatre Project to showcase his own writing and 10 years ago he toured Canada with the comedic Sabotage show to great reviews. He wrote the music for that as well.

And these days he’s the guy out front of the Vagabond Opera pumping on his accordion.

“My dad played the accordion,” says Stern, “but I didn’t start playing it until I was 24. A woman broke up with me and I saw an accordion in a pawn shop window and bought it and played myself out of depression.”

Vagabond Opera was borne out of Stern’s disaffection with the classical opera world back in 2002 and as he was developing ideas for it he began incorporating different strains into the music like Baltic and Arabic styles plus a good dash of Weimar music hall — think Cabaret.

On stage the six cast members are presented in various get-ups that draw you back to other times, other exotic places. Stern’s father may be Belgian but for this project he’s dipping into his mother’s Jewish Lithuanian bloodlines. Funny how these things show up down the chain. The group’s recent trip to Poland proved especially enlightening.

“It was almost bringing that music back in a sort of refracted way,” says Stern. “It was an exchange, really. In Eastern Europe rock ’n’ roll and jazz were outlawed, basically. But these people loved jazz and rock ’n’ roll so I got to hear their take on that. It was funny going to a bar and these rockers were singing these classic rock songs from the ’50s and ’60s and they didn’t speak a word of English but you wouldn’t have known. It was this nice cultural exchange to hear them interpret us and us interpret them.”

 10/10/11 >> go there
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