Vagabond Opera isn't easy to define — even for those in the eclectic Portland band, performing tonight in Olympia.
“We talk for hours in the band about this,” said Robin Jackson, who plays saxophone and clarinet and sings in the band. “It’s the most talked-about thing.”
But Jackson, a graduate of The Evergreen State College, does have an elevator pitch for Vagabond Opera.
“I usually name the instruments – accordion, saxophone, cello – and then say we do songs in 15 languages,” he said. “There are elements of Tom Waits mixed with Edith Piaf and Kurt Weill, playing in a Parisian nightclub.”
But opera does have something to do with it, said Eric Stern, the group’s founder and a trained opera singer. It’s just not the opera you might have seen elsewhere.
“We are extending the operatic tradition and creating a hybrid,” he said. That means using trained operatic voices, singing in an array of languages and sometimes performing arias – either reworked or not.
For example, Stern used the lyrics from “One Furtive Tear,” a tenor aria from Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love,” and set them to contemporary music.
Opera inspired the group’s theatricality as well. “Costume and spectacle definitely have a role to play, as they do in opera,” he said. “We’re not just a band staring at our shoes.”
The band, formed in 2002, mixes musical styles, from Gypsy to klezmer and beyond. “We are trying to increase or at least maintain biodiversity in music,” Stern sad. “There’s this illusion that things are in categories: heavy metal, jazz, opera, classical.
“If you realize that things are fluid and that you can use different forms any way you want, just as a painter would use any colors he or she wanted, things open up and your portrait becomes more interesting.”
And it would seem that Vagabond Opera – called by the Toronto Star “delightfully nuts” – is nothing if not interesting.
“Stern has found an exuberant and satisfying place where operatic vocal technique and popular idioms intersect,” Ryan Tracy wrote in a 2009 piece for the New York Press.
The performance is spiced up with sketches, audience interaction, occasional special guest dancers and, of course, all of those different cultures. Jackson graduated from Evergreen in 2003 with a degree in ethnomusicology and is delighted to be using his degree.
“It was a cool opportunity to be in a band that was more than a band,” he said of his collaboration with Stern. “I’m a theater-head and it satisfied my desire for musical theater.
“It’s totally a weird group, and I love that.”
One term band members often use to describe the result is “neo-cabaret,” he said, adding: “That reminds you of Liza Minnelli, and some people in the band can’t stand that. Some of us don’t even want the word ‘cabaret’ in it.”