Are the words "vagabond" and "opera" mutually exclusive? Not in Eric Stern's eyes.
The European-trained operatic tenor cast aside all the formalities associated with classical opera by marrying it with Bohemian cabaret, klezmer, gypsy music, jazz, folk-punk, blues and multiple ethnic flavors to create an electrifying new genre: Vagabond Opera.
The troupe of six accomplished instrumentalists and vocalists sings in 15 languages, romps about the stage and rivets the attention of everyone in the audience who is captivated by zesty music, incomparable musicianship, humor and surprising forays into the absurd. Returning in the wake of its headlining appearance in June at the Washington Jewish Music Festival, the band has reinvented itself anew. The two area shows at Washington's Palace of Wonders and Baltimore's Creative Alliance both open with the Ooh La La Bellydancers. Need we say more?
If you go Vagabond Opera goes Bohemian Where: The Palace of Wonders, 1210 H St. NE When: 9 p.m. Thursday Info: $15; 202-591-3252; palaceofwonders.com Also in Baltimore: Where: Creative Alliance at The Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. When: 8 p.m. Friday Info: $15; creativealliance.org
"Our shows are never the same," Stern said. "It all depends on the demographics of the audience. Opera lovers, as well as those who have never attended an opera, are astounded by us. There's nothing more powerful than the naked voice, and when they hear lyrics and melodies they know presented in a different way amid a spectacle, they discover that they are part of what is happening onstage." While working in Europe, Stern frequented small cabarets and Old World Yiddish theaters where all ages gathered to enjoy the ethnic music. Convinced the variety of styles drawing those patrons could enhance the presentation of neoclassical opera, he returned to Portland, Ore., in 2002 to found Vagabond Opera. Because the city is one where musicians thrive, he did not have to recruit, but was besieged by artists eager to become part of the unique concept.
The Bohemian cabaret ensemble consists today of clarinetist Jason Flores, drummer/composer Mark Burdon, saxophonist Robin Jackson, cellist Skip von Kuske, cellist/soprano Ashia Grzesik and tenor Stern as accordionist, pianist, composer and showman. In May, the company joined forces with Wanderlust Circus and guest artists to perform Stern's first opera, "Queen of Knives." The Portland debut elicited critical praise for "one sharp show."
Vagabond Opera's third and latest album, "The Zeitgeist Beckons," reaches out to the growing number of fans earned through NPR broadcasts, cross-country tours and performances with the Oregon Symphony and pop stars.
"Essentially, the title refers to the ideas in my head and a sea change in mood to suit the spirit of the times," Stern said. "People are tired of pop setups and overblown scenery. Because we live in a day and age when folks are not encouraged to study music as they were in the past, today's audiences are ready for a chance to become part of a musical, fun-filled spectacle."