VAGABONDAGE: Stern, center, and the rest of the Vagabond Opera. IMAGE: Alicia J. Rose
"There's nothing like telling a story," says Eric Stern, the founder of Vagabond Opera, Portland's "Balkan-Arabic klezmer-based, original absurdist cabaret ensemble." "It's just human nature. This all goes back to sitting around the campfire and singing stories. You strip away the costumes and the training and there's that visceral thing where someone is telling a fascinating story with song. What could be better than that?"
This weekend and next, Vagabond Opera mounts its first fully staged opera, Queen of Knives. Set in the declining days of carnival culture, which coincided with the rise of the various 1960s protest movements, the opera tells the story of a brother-and-sister knife-throwing act who encounter a magical blade, femme fatale and the like in the midst of the student protests in Birmingham, Ala. Directed by the self-described "ringmaster of the Portland Freak Underground," Noah Mickens, the show will feature his Wanderlust Circus' typical complement of fire dancers, belly dancers and other neo-circus antics, Vagabond Opera playing live onstage and excellent singers from Portland Opera, Opera Theater Oregon and Willamette Concert opera. Pianist/singer Scot Crandal, cellist/singer Ashia Grzesik and Stern himself will perform in leading roles.
A tenor who was classically trained in his native Philadelphia, New York and Paris, Stern has long pushed the boundaries of the classical music world. Since 2002, he's led Vagabond Opera, with its wild mix of operatic vocals, stage shenanigans, and musical styles, to ever greater prominence. Venues began asking them for even bigger productions, and that ignited the idea of doing a full-blown opera. But not a traditional one.
"I left the strict opera world because I didn't feel there was anything else to explore in that Western European tradition," Stern says. "I wanted to put something else in there," including other musical traditions such as Arabic sounds (the protagonist of Queen of Knives is a belly dancer) and the Balkan, Romanian, jazz, flamenco, Greek and klezmer influences that have fueled Vagabond Opera's wide-ranging aesthetic. "There'll be some stuff that sounds like DeVotchKa, some like Beirut, some like a chamber ensemble," he says. "The Threepenny Opera is my ur-text." A recording of that gritty Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht masterpiece changed Stern's life when he heard it as a kid, he says, and several Queen of Knives songs show its influence. "Like Brecht and Weill, I'm trying to use language in an arresting way counter to the rhythm and melody so it doesn't lull you into diaphanous operatic haze. And I wanted to present this in English so people aren't thrown a kaleidoscope of words that sound beautiful but they don't understand."
He also wanted to keep it intimate. "It doesn't have to be big and expensive, and that's always been my point with doing Vagabond Opera," Stern explains. "I think that's where opera falters these days. I'm sort of a fundamentalist; I've always said you can do Shakespeare with a sword and two chairs and good actors," he says, citing Joseph Papp's populist Shakespeare in the Park productions in New York. "It's the same with opera. I'm a miniaturist in the opera world: You need people who have training, but you don't need this huge infrastructure."
He's not alone. "The experience of many classical musicians of my generation and younger is that we've been educated and told that you have to do everything in this restricted style, and we've rebelled," he explains, citing fellow rebels like Opera Theater Oregon and Portland Cello Project. They and a burgeoning corps of local musicians such as Classical Revolution, Electric Opera and vocal ensembles like FourScore and the Julians have recently been rejecting and reinventing the stifling old formulas that have long distanced classical music from wider, younger audiences, by presenting original material, in informal venues, that speaks to contemporary listeners.
"We're like Prometheus—we get to snatch the fire and do whatever we want," Stern says. "Things get established and boring and it's time for the next wave. I imagine this sort of renewal has to happen every few years if an art form is to remain viable. Look at [Leonard] Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story. "
The alt-classical emergence is both generational and geographical, and to Stern, it's no surprise that such alternative classical music has found a congenial home here. "I am happy to be premiering this in Portland—it's a musical laboratory," he says. "Since planting my roots here, I've felt Portland has graced me with its wonderful rain that has helped me flourish and grow, and I feel so honored to be part of this city and what's happening here. It feels like Paris in the '20s.""
Vagabond Opera and Wanderlust Circus'
plays 8 pm Friday-Sunday, May 7-9, and Thursday-Saturday, May 13-15, at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N Interstate Ave., 800-838-3006, vagabondopera.com/queen-of-knives. Tickets $18-$20.