More About Vagabond Opera
|European Cabaret! Vintage Americana! Balkan Belly Dance! Neo-Classical Opera! Old World Yiddish Theater! Welcome to the six-piece, Portland, Oregon-based Vagabond Opera.|
Bohemian Cabaret ensemble Vagabond Opera is described by the Washington Post as A band of ceaseless charisma, boundless energy, impeccable musicianship and more than a little touch of both the naughty and exotic. The group delivers passionate offerings of Bohemian cabaret for young and old. Paris hot jazz, gut bucket swing, tangos, Ukrainian folk-punk ballads, klezmer and vigorous originals meet a world of riverboat gambling queens, Turkish belly dancers, and the enigmatic Marlene Dietrich. Weaving elements of Kurt Weil, Duke Ellington and Edith Piaf with absurdist flair, theatrics and an old world mood, Vagabond Opera presents the new wave of opera–lusty voices singing in 13 languages and presenting a cabaret of rich musical phrasing, sparkling lyrics and indomitable stage presence, all played with exuberance, skill and a gritty Vagabond edge. This is Opera liberated and reinvented for everyone!
The band’s lineup features trained operatic tenor and soprano vocals, accordion, tenor saxophone, two cellos, stand-up bass, and drums. Guest performers and dancers often appear with the ensemble.
Vagabond Opera is at the vanguard of a growing popularity in the Neo-cabaret phenomenon, and through their theatrical performances, lyrics in 13 languages, and an eclectic repertoire, they liberate opera from its usual construct, expanding musical and theatrical biodiversity. Vagabond Opera has performed all over the USA and in Europe. They have been featured on NPR, in the Washington Post and Jazziz Magazine, and have shared stages and players with such acclaimed acts as Pink Martini, Devotchka, The Decembrists, Balkan Beat Box, Al Franken, and the Oregon Symphony. Vagabond opera has three full-length albums.
Vagabond Opera was created in 2002 by European-trained opera singer and composer Eric Stern. Then disillusioned with the classical opera world, Stern created a new context for opera: Performance on a more intimate scale incorporating not only opera but elements of Weimar Cabaret, Arabic and Balkan forms, and the original music that springs from the ensemble's fertile creative work. This is not your granny's opera, but a visceral artistic ensemble that features powerful instrumental and vocal performances coupled with a highly eclectic and theatrical experience.
Eric is the Northwest’s own premiere operatic tenor, accordionist, pianist, composer and consummate showman, an unparalleled devo with incendiary stage presence and devilish virtuosity. Trained in Europe he has performed there and in the U.S. and Canada garnering critical acclaim for his musicianship and his stunningly imaginative songwriting.
Eric Stern has appeared with the Decemberists, Devotchka, Pink Martini, Balkan Beat Box, and many more artists. In Portland Oregon he leads Vagabond Opera, a Balkan Arabic Klezmer-based, original absurdist cabaret ensemble. Eric Stern composes, arranges, fronts, and is the lyricist for the band. Eric Stern has appeared on NPR and all over the world from Portland to Paris to Poland.
In Portland he was commisioned in 2007 to compose the music for Tears Of Joy Puppet Theatre production of Pinocchio and most recently composed the full-length opera “Queen of Knives” which premiered in Portland.
Rogue philosopher and militant musical desegregationist Jason Krivo Flores is a true outlier. His Balkan Beat Box meets Triplets of Belleville compositional flavor heavily influences the overall Vagabond Opera musical aesthetic. Krivo is skilled on the upright and electric basses, gypsy jazz guitar, melodica and his current favorite instrument the traditional Mexican guitar. An instrument which he has somewhat single handedly thrust into the realms of gypsy jazz, and Balkan folk music.
There is a saying that Turks and Bulgarians are born with one leg shorter than the other. This theory explains why most of their dances are in 7/8, 9/8, and other lopsided time signatures. We can't say whether or not this fact is true for the Turks. However, we can tell you that bassist Jason Flores was born with one short leg (which led a Bulgarian folk dancer to dub him Krivo, the Bulgarian word for crooked). This biological fact is thought to explain his lifelong attraction to both left leaning time signatures and politics.
Jason is also a passionate intellectual and speaks openly on many topics including philosophy, science, Taoism, Buddhism, mysticism, attachment parenting, polyamory, and gay rights. He is currently writing his first book tentatively titled "Magick without Metaphysics: A Handbook for Science Positive Spirituality".
His philosophy has been called Mystical Atheism by fans and critics alike. He likes to describe it as containing all of the transcendence and insight of religion with none of the superstition or dogma.
In Vagabond Opera he helps the group stay in touch with their shadow side and is usually the first to advocate the controversial and edgy. Currently Krivo also performs with Trashcan Joe, Saloon Ensemble and his own project, Krivo Swing. He can be heard playing upright bass and guitar on Hunter Paye's latest recording "Dualities Dilemma" and on Captain James Cook's upcoming solo CD.
Jason Has no free time, but enjoys reading nonfiction, poetry and philosophy, practicing new instruments, teaching his daughter to play the ukulele and writing overblown biographies in which he refers to himself in the third person.
Jason studied jazz composition, music theory, and world philosophy at the University of New Mexico before leaving to pursue a wider spectrum of musical interests. Jason’s previous flirtation with Middle Eastern and Balkan music became focused when he met Armenian American master clarinetist Souren Baronian in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jason learned much of the nuts and bolts of Turkish/Armenian music and rhythm from Baronian’s workshops and concerts.
Harnessing her rousing vocals and whimsical, gutsy cello lines, Ashia Grzesik creates songs with elements of cabaret, folk, pop, and dark americana. Her songs and writing reflect longing for her Slavic roots with Chopineasque and gypsy musings and the blues, rock, and open harmonies of the New World.
After training in classical cello and voice, Ashia's career started for what usually is the end for many artists- a show on the Las Vegas strip. At the age of 21, she was invited to play cello and sing at Cirque du Soleil’s production of “O” in Vegas. Within this backwards birth, the experience with aerialists, dancers, physical actors, and circus performers infected her with a strong interest in theatrical and cabaret performance.
Upon leaving “O”, she recorded the CD "Pay to be Loved" and continued to perform, including in Seattle’s vaudeville Moisture Festival and many artistically liberating shows. Ashia has performed Nationally, as well as Canada, Japan, Germany, her birth city Wroclaw, Poland in the theatrical song festival Przeglad Piosenki Aktorskie, and Hong Kong.
Only about a year or two ago, her heart was wooed to the raw and rainy Pacific NW city Portland, OR, where she extensively writes, performs solo works and her talents in operatic vocals, gypsy cello soloing, and theatrics are continuously stretched in the bohemian-cabaret band Vagabond Opera. Also being a part of the wonderful community being The Portland Cello Project, she has collaborated with the likes of Loch Lomond, Sally Ford, Storm Large, Laura Gibson, Justin Power, Thoa Nguyen, Y la Bamba, and Amanda Richards. Recently, she played a principal role in the sold out premier run of the Queen of Knives opera written by Eric Stern. Also, she wrote folk inspired cello incidental music for the production of The Gray Sisters, by award winning Third Rail Theater, which she received a Drammy for best original music 2009-10.
Ashia's performances vary from the theatrical cabaret, rowdy eastern euro bars, sit-down concert halls, and keen little dives intended for acoustic intimacy and subtlety. What else could become of a Polish immigrant with a whiskey lovin' blues singer father and a classical music ballet devoted mother, but a cello score writing, skinny leggin burlesqueing, opera misfit, wide eyed feet on the floor mesh of cello and song?
Drummer/composer Mark Burdon's fluid, textural style is an amalgam of diverse influences including over a decade of work as part of the jazz scene on the East Coast and extensive studies of African and Brazilian styles of music.
Mark's formal education includes a degree from Berklee College of Music, private lessons with respected teachers Bob Gullotti and the great jazz drummer Alan Dawson, and several summers of study with West African drummers, Abu Bakari and Godwin Agbeli. Mark who is half Brazilian has also spent extensive time traveling in Brazil studying and performing both modern and traditional styles of music.
Over the years he has performed and/or recorded with a wide variety of musicians including improvising saxophonists Ken Vandermark, Rich Halley, Jack Wright, Assif Tsahar, trumpeter Rob Blakeslee, violinist Mat Maneri, traditional Ghanaian drummers Godwin Agbeli and Abu Bakari, guitarist Doug Theriault, microtonal guitarist Jon Catler, the Zimbabwe style marimba band Boka Marimba, the Brazilian jazz group Gandaya, Three Leg Torso, Brothers of the Baladi and many others. He has also accompanied the Beth Soll Dance Company and composed and performed music for two works by actor Christine Calfas. In addition to Vagabond Opera, Mark is currently leading two of his own groups: The Ensemble of Strategic Information and The Mark Burdon Trio.
Playing with Vagabond Opera is really a lot of fun. The music is diverse and because we rarely use a set list or play a song the same way twice, there are always surprises when we perform. That’s one of the luxuries of having strong improvisers in a group who can listen and aren’t afraid to stick their necks out. I love the material, humor and creativity of the band and really enjoy our gigs. I’m excited about VO and look forward to being part of its musical evolution.
When Robin was less than a year old, his dad used to bounce him on his knee and say "Feel the beat?, Feel the beat?!" This early programming led him to become the dedicated musician he is today.
He began with Violin at 4 years old, then added saxophone at age 13. He began singing as a child and is almost totally self taught. He began composing music as a teenager and in 2007 won 2nd place in the ISC, one of the world's most prestigious song writing competitions.
Robin's diverse musical palate includes training from Zimbabwe, West Africa, Eastern Europe, Brazil and beyond. He also plays the clarinet, marimba, mbira, digeredoo and drums. His fascination with music from around the world, led him to a degree in ethnomusicology from the U of O and Evergreen State college in 2003. He also studied at the New Zealand Jazz University, where he lived for 7 years and worked as a street performer. His passion for cabaret, circus arts and musical theater grew in high school when he joined a theater improv group.
He has performed and toured internationally with a multitude of successful and zany groups and currently plays with Vagabond Opera and March Fourth Marching Band. He has appeared three times on Oregon Public Television in documentaries about Northwest musicians.
Robin also works as a part time youth mentor, music publicist, professional schmoozer, goes to burning man, and hangs out at his urban farm with his cat, Miso. He lives in Portland, OR
Many musicians and critics debate about the merits of this genre or that, what's in, what's out, and so on, but there are few talented artists who rise above the fray, and who dedicate their efforts to fostering the creation and evolution of music, rather than the categorization and judgment of it. Skip vonKuske is one these musicians. His open-mindedness, musical sensibility, technical ability, piercing emotion and improvisational skills have made him one of the most sought after cellists in the Northwest.
While perhaps best known as a master collaborator for his work with groups such as Vagabond Opera and the Portland Cello Project, Skip vonKuske is also many other things: a composer, an innovator, an improviser, and producer. The Oregonian has described him as "a one-man chamber ensemble," and this is apparent in his solo work, in which he uses looping technology and sound-manipulation tools to push the cello into uncharted terrain, and yet does so without sacrificing the sentiment which is heard in his powerful, concise phrasing.
Skip began playing cello at the age of eight, and has studied with renowned cellists William Stokking of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Lorne Munro of the New York Philharmonic. He attended the Performing Arts School of Philadelphia and also studied at Michigan State University. While at MSU, Skip performed with numerous regional orchestras and in several original music projects, in which he also played bass, guitar and mandolin. When Skip moved to Portland, Oregon in 1994, his skills as an improviser and singer/songwriter set him apart from many other classically trained musicians. In his first three years in Portland he recorded with well over fifty artists. And over the last decade, Skip’s cello has provided vital, though often subtle texture, to hundreds of recordings including M. Ward’s “Post War” and Pink Martini’s “Sympathique".
Skip has also worked with the Oregon Symphony and performed with Smokey Robinson, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Judy Collins, Crystal Gayle and many others. He stays active in the Portland's Jazz community and continues to collaborate with film makers, producers, chamber music groups and is the first call of top music studios whenever a professional cellist is needed, whether their client has chord charts, written parts, or even no preconceived ideas.
Skip is currently concentrating on solo performance of personal projects and compositions including cellotronik, where he uses layered work with electronic elements to create hypnotic and techno-organic music which keeps the cello at the fore of countless blends of sounds and rhythms.
His latest project "Groovy Wallpaper" takes it a step further with the added voice of eclectic percussion. The debut album is available September 8th 2010.
Dr. Xander Gerrymander
Dr. Xander Gerrymander (aka Xander Almeida) was born in the tropical beach side paradise and cultural void of Santa Barbara, California. At the age of nineteen he sailed away to far off and distant Portland in search of a better life, though bemoaning having to leave his wonderful parents and sister behind. There he came across of troupe of Vagabonds who were looking for just such a skill set as he processed. Soon he became an officially ordained Doctor of Malarkey, and has been practicing for Vagabond Opera since May of 2009.
With the band, he is involved mostly in merchandising, recruiting of the national street team as the 503rd Vagabond Volunteer Regiment Commander, theatrics on stage, managing the social networking sites, shipping of Vagabond sanctioned propaganda across the world and the most dangerous job of all : Diva Handler, a job in which nearly cost him several limbs and his dignity (pleased to say, he has kept both!)
His many theatrical elements include bringing fallen sopranos back from the dead, the ancient and mystical practice of Tom Chi (a Waits-ian version of Tai Chi), his practice as an on stage barber and as the prolific world traveler, Dr. Xander Gerrymander, and many more.
He currently attends Portland State University, writes journalism pieces for the Portland Spectator and is heavily involved in national world politics and affairs.
His whiskey of choice is Bulleit Bourbon, though also enjoys Bookers Whiskey when he can afford it. When he is poor, which is most of the time, he drinks Jim Beam Rye Whiskey or when things are really down, Old Crow, which he claims is medicinal, also does the trick.
He is a wearer of fine hats, his hat size is 7 3/8ths and he uses both Clubman Mustache Wax and Man’s Face Stuff All-Nighter Wax.
He was said to have challenged Aaron Burr once to a duel, but due to a scheduling conflict and prior engagement on the Vice-President’s part, Burr had to decline. This claim has yet to be verified.
NOTE: Ursula Knudson performs with the band as a guest artist only on various occasions. Vocals, Violin, Saw, Banjolele and Percussion. After singing opera on the streets and in the town squares in Italy for two years, Ursula decided to try move to the States… Self-taught on the saw, she won 2nd place in the 2004 International Saw Festival. Ursula sings beautifully in Romanian, Romanes, Rom, (yes, three different languages!) French,Italian, Serbian, Japanese, and sometimes even in English, her native tongue. She also plays with her other group, the Fishtank Ensemble, and lives in Los Angeles.