There’s sort of no magical story that we were drifting on a boat as the sun went down and we realized we needed to perform together,” Eric Stern, Artistic Director and founder of Vagabond Opera said of his four full-time cohorts and fellow musicians. Instead, Stern was a classically trained opera singer, a tenor, who suddenly decided to abandon his life in New Mexico at the age of 30. He found himself, without any sort of real design or purpose, in Portland, playing the accordion and singing music on the street.
On March 6 Stern’s musical group, which bills itself simultaneously as a ’20s-style European cabaret, vintage Americana, Balkan belly dance, neo-classical opera, and old world Yiddish theater, will perform at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande. And last month the troupe returned from a tour of Greece where they performed in the country’s most famous jazz club. But Stern remains nostalgic about his stint as a street performer.
The musician’s goals for Vagabond Opera are two-fold; Stern pursues a term that The New Yorker called “aesthetic transformation,” which Stern interpreted to mean, “to open our ears and especially to open our American ears, to show people other musical colors and to let them see that they can enjoy them.” He also wanted to provide audiences with a new context for opera.
His ragtag band of followers fell into place quickly, if not conventionally. The bassist, Jason Flores, first heard Stern’s music through a recording at a modern dance class. Drummer Mark Burdon was well known throughout Portland and Stern deliberately sought him out. Around the time the band began seeking a female violinist, Skip vonKuske—a cellist, neither female nor violinist—arrived on the scene. Stern jokes that vonKuske became the group’s female violinist and a photo of the musician wearing a red feather boa on the band’s website corroborates this statement. Add Robin Jackson, a saxophonist and violinist whose musical repertoire also encompasses the marimba, the mbira, the drums, and the digeredoo and you’ve got the vagabonds. Almost.
Ursula Knudson, who has a knack for languages and instruments, is the band’s primary female vocalist, though Stern describes the role as something of a rotating door position. Knudson plays the violin, the saw, banjolele, and percussion and sings in Romanian, Romanes, Rom, French, Italian, Serbian, Japanese, and English, but because she lives in Los Angeles it’s difficult for the virtuoso to rehearse with the Portland-based group.
They sing in English, French, Italian, Ladino (a language primarily utilized by Sephardic Jews), Yiddish, Arabic, Ukrainian, and an Eastern European nonsense tongue, 13 languages altogether. Stern offers to demonstrate the nonsense language and within seconds he’s mashing consonants and sliding z’s, creating what sounds—to the ignorant American ear, at least—like an Eastern European language.
The troupe’s first concert took place in 2002, and was something of a shock to Stern.
“You have to understand I came from a classical world, did not understand how the music ensemble band worked,” he explained. “In one of our first gigs in Portland, I thought newspapers just let out a bunch of reporters to go see shows. I assumed we would make a huge splash on the scene and, of course, that didn’t happen at all. We remained completely anonymous.”
Like most performers, the vagabonds had to climb their way up the ladder, from the smoky bars, coffee houses, and art galleries to the posh concert halls, though Stern maintains that neither type of venue is superior. The music changed along the way, initially rooted in opera and klezmer music before a Balkan influence began to emerge. It took awhile, but Stern realized that he wanted to explore a more diverse array of music.
The company’s theatrical antics, which have become as much a trademark as their hybrid musical form, also had to be nurtured along. During their earlier gigs the performers dressed up for each performance, but lacked the cabaret aesthetic and banter. Stern turned to his improv theater training, with the help of Jackson, who also has a theatrical background, to transform each performance into a show rather than a series of songs. He also turned to the formula that Philadelphian rabbi Marcia Praeger gave him while he was still in his early 20s; while leading Shabbat services she would bring her congregation to an emotional plateau before releasing them, allowing them to laugh. This plateau would be followed by another, then another, much like a staircase. Stern would recall this when developing a general performance outline.
It wasn’t necessarily an easy transition into the bowler and suspender-wearing gang that often swells to incorporate hula hoopers and belly dancers, and Stern acknowledges that there was some reluctance from certain performers. But eventually they struck on a formula that worked, a fact that can be credited to one basic guarantee.
“We never sacrifice the music for anything,” Stern assured.
Because of the group’s success and exhaustive travel schedule, Vagabond Opera doesn’t have as much designated rehearsal time as Stern would like. In an ideal world, he claims, the tribe would take several weeks’ break from traveling each year and utilize that time to develop new material. Instead, Stern and Jackson create new sketches and banter from the road, and give it a whirl during their next gig. The theatrical element might have taken time to develop but now that it has, it’s difficult for some of the vagabonds to locate an off switch.
“I think, over time, certain aspects of our personalities develop and become exaggerated,” admitted Stern. “I feel like this, the person you’re talking to, is almost like a secret identity.”
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is most certainly a vagabond. Send ragged shoes to email@example.com.