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Vagabond Opera is not really opera

Portland ensemble brings its Bohemian cabaret to Millennium Place

By Stephen Smysnuik

WHAT: Vagabond Opera

WHERE: Millennium Place

WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 13, 8 p.m.


Opera. Those of us tuned to the standard verse-chorus-verse pop format might scoff at even the sight of the word. We might roll our eyes or shudder at the thought of sitting through an hour of piercing sopranos singing in Italian while orchestras swell.

So, if that's the case, pay more attention to the "vagabond" half of Vagabond Opera than the "opera." Because while the Portland six-piece ensemble takes a cue from the operatic tradition, it's also clutching the hands of a dozen other styles and cultures. They could have been formed in 1920s Paris or 1970s New York just as easily as their beginnings in 2000s Oregon.

But opera is where it all begins. Eric Stern, a European-trained opera singer and composer, created Vagabond Opera in 2002 as a way to distill the best elements of what he had learned in university into a hybrid of other forms of music that could appeal to his, and his generation's, varied tastes and experiences.

"Its easy to set it up as me versus opera or the old way versus the new way," he says with a laugh. "I think that world had so much to offer in terms of languages, in terms of immersing yourself."

These lessons the Opera takes seriously. The band is a melting pot of ideas, singing in 13 different languages, with all members taking inspiration from cabaret, classical compositions, Paris hot jazz, Ukrainian folk ballads, Balkan belly dance and on and on. They dig deep into these musical forms, creating an authentic representation of these varied cultures for a body of work that is remarkably unified.

Vagabond Opera is essentially carrying on in the tradition laid out by George Martin and the Beatles in the late 1960s when they began incorporating classical and vaudeville elements into their compositions. The punk movement effectively stamped that out in favour of the standard verse-chorus-verse format but a handful of underground bands carried on with cabaret, vaudeville and opera as inspiration. Today, artists like Björk and Beirut take elements of orchestral pop, chamber music and Eastern European folk into their songs while Vagabond Opera takes it even further afield.

"This isn't something that everyone can play but it's something that everyone can dance to and really soak in. But it's not two or three power chords as we stand there in our jeans," he says.

Vagabond Opera's first few years were like a "soup" of ideas, according to Stern, and in that time they released one album, 2003s Get on the Train. By their next album, 2006s Vagabond Opera, they had already laid the groundwork, played all the shows and toured enough to solidify what they were and how they were going to play.

"We're really trying to make a spectacle and a presentation rather than standing there in jeans looking down at our shoes, which is fine but it's not what we do," Stern says

They've travelled all over North America and Europe, where Stern says their music taps into a pre-war nostalgia, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the folk traditions are still very much in their blood, even after decades of war, turmoil and, afterward, their own rock and roll revolution. He says its as though Vagabond Opera is the echo of a tune the Europeans sent out across the Atlantic a century ago.

"That consciousness is still there, where it's not in our country, and in some ways it makes it more meaningful to them. It roots to something that they've lost more recently," he says.

Tickets are available at or Millennium Place for $24.

 10/05/11 >> go there
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