Vagabond Opera frontman Eric Stern is no stranger to irony
You won’t catch Vagabond Opera performing in jeans and T-shirts. Since its formation in 2002, the U.S. ensemble has always donned stylish togs that evoke vaudeville and the European cabaret scene of the ’20s and ’30s. However, the retro look isn’t a perfect fit with the sextet’s multifaceted music, and that’s led to some misunderstandings by the media.
“Critics who hadn’t really listened to us thought, ”˜Oh, they play creaky old-time stuff,’” says Eric Stern, Vagabond Opera’s artistic director, pianist, accordionist, and main singer, reached at his home in Portland, Oregon. “Suddenly we were boxed into the era of our costumes. What we play draws part of its inspiration from those times, but I don’t believe in being an ensemble that only looks backwards.”
The songs on Vagabond Opera’s recently released album The Zeitgeist Beckons make that clear. Mostly written by Stern or saxophonist Robin Jackson, they represent a startlingly original mix of genres: swing and Ellingtonian jazz; instrumental music from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East; classical; and, of course, opera—Stern’s first love and his enduring passion.
“I was immersed in opera from a very young age and later sang roles,” says the 38-year-old tenor. “That world gave me so much, though in time it started to feel too narrow and its efforts to reach out to young people seemed feeble. I wanted to connect with my peers, and thought ”˜Why can’t there be another context for opera? And different instruments played?’ I realized there was no reason to stay within the established confines, that the art could be advanced by developing a new hybrid that was more readily accessible.”
There’s certainly nothing too highbrow about Vagabond Opera’s fusion of music with popular theatre. The ensemble’s shows include many comedic elements, and the humour is often dark-hued, with a sharp sense of irony. “I think that comes partly from my being Jewish and having East European roots,” says Stern. “It’s in the history if not in the blood. Irony is also part of the cabaret tradition, especially in prewar Germany. Plus, this ensemble was created during the Bush years, and the politics of that time touch us. There’s no way we couldn’t be ironic.”
On-stage, Stern—who plays the roles of barker, conductor, and presenter—assesses each audience and is careful not to push it too far, or too soon, with Vagabond Opera’s edgier and more challenging material. The set list and script are open to swift changes.
“I plan things only loosely and am sensitive to the energy in the house, so I’ll call things differently in the moment. It’s a calculated strategy in some respects. We’ll venture out further and further in a series of concentric circles—going back to a place where the audience is comfortable then taking it further out again. Our performances are never the same. That’s what makes it exciting, vibrant, and a little harder work for us.”
Vagabond Opera performs at the Capilano Performing Arts Theatre on Friday (November 6).