Vagabond Opera
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Vagabond Opera

Portland, Oregon, United States | SELF

Portland, Oregon, United States | SELF
Band World Cabaret


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""The Restless Opera Company""

Many musicians can trace their choice of career to an act of teenage rebellion. But Eric Stern may be one of the few whose youthful bad- boy urges led him to opera — though, to be fair, his Vagabond Opera ensemble is not your standard opera company. Nor is Stern your standard opera singer.

Stern’s parents ran an anarcho-syndicalist bookshop and record store in Philadelphia. And while music of various kinds could be heard around the Stern household, Verdi and Puccini were not among them. “For me, rebelling meant studying opera,” Stern told the Forward in an interview from his home in Portland, Ore. A stint in the chorus of the Delaware Valley Opera Company led to private voice lessons, though Stern briefly decamped to Paris to pursue a career as a writer. “I thought that’s where writers went,” he said.

In the end, Stern returned to the United States and began to win minor operatic roles. He also began to explore his Jewish heritage with the help of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a fellow Pennsylvania native and one of the first female rabbis ordained in America. Those spiritual investigations prompted Stern to look for Jewish connections in music, as well, and ultimately led him to klezmer. Stern’s grandmother had performed in the Yiddish theater, and he had heard some Jewish music as a child; but he now began eagerly soaking up large quantities of the stuff, delving into recordings by everyone from traditionalists like the Klezmer Conservatory Band to experimentalists like John Zorn.

Stern’s curiosity, and his scholarly bent — his conversation is peppered with references to Aristotle and the Talmud — soon led him to explore related forms of music from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. (He’s currently studying Balkan accordion.) Throughout, Stern has been guided by what he describes as a Talmudic approach to music: “You immerse yourself in text and in teachings,” he said. For Stern, that means both understanding the words he sings and learning as much as possible about the history and culture behind the music. His interest in Arab percussion, for example, led to several semesters’ worth of Arabic at Portland State University.

The Vagabond Opera might best be seen as the culmination of all this intellectual and musical restlessness, or as a holding company for all of Stern’s distantly related interests — or, better yet, as an ensemble of like-minded musicians who are willing to tackle anything that Stern can throw at them. The group’s first, eponymous recording gives a pretty good indication of just what that can involve: The program covers Aaron Lebedeff’s Yiddish classic, “Romania, Romania”; traditional Ukrainian, Macedonian and Middle Eastern material; bits and pieces of various operas, and several Stern originals before coming to a close on “Otchi Chornyia.”

There’s a strong undercurrent of louche, fin-de-siècle cabaret to the Vagabond Opera’s work, one that is fed by the ensemble’s lurching rhythms and madcap energy, and underscored by Stern’s deranged- ringmaster persona. To hear Robin Jackson, their Sax player intone the introduction to “Ravella” (“Friends, have you ever had it all? The glittering gold, the fortune, the girl? And then it was gone, in one spin of the wheel, one drop of the cards, and one wink of an eye? … Yes! I mean no! I mean yes! I mean no! But… why don’t you tell us all about it in song form, using riverboat imagery and perhaps a monkey or two?”) in the sterntorian tones of a carnival barker is to hear a man whose love of the absurd is matched only by his complete lack of inhibition. (The group’s proclivity for bowlers, straw hats and suspenders only heightens the carnival/cabaret effect, as does its occasional use of a belly dancer.) “I would hope that we’re theater in the Attic sense,” Stern said. “At its best, I want it to blend all of Aristotle’s elements of musicality, theatricality and all the rest.”

And yet there remains a Jewish substratum to all of this which emerges not only in Stern’s choice of repertoire (“Romania, Romania”; Alexander Olshanetsky’s “Ich Hob Dikh Tsu Ful Lib”), but also in his desire to create a sense of ritual space with each performance. Stern credits Rabbi Marcia Praeger of Philadelphia with having explained to him the narrative structure of the Sabbath service, and says that he models the Opera’s performances along similar lines, pacing the ensemble and leading audiences “without pandering.” It’s an interesting analogy, but it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch once you’ve actually heard the group; antics aside, they cast a powerful spell.

Alexander Gelfand - The Forward

""Vagabond Opera""

Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, there run two rivers, one of vodka and one of absinthe. Not found on any maps, they are known only to five men and one woman. The name of these musicians? Vagabond Opera. Fusing klezmer with sounds of the Balkans and the Rom, along with a peppering of belly dance, opera, and tango, these neo-cabaret fire starters roll out a rabble-rousing vision of globalization, 1920s-style.

Todd Lavoie - SF Bay Guardian

"Papa's Got a Brand New Belt"

Vagabond Opera sings outside the box IT ISN’T UNCOMMON to be let down by something that comes along calling itself “opera,” only to find out that it either has nothing at all to do with opera, or that it’s basically a musical. (For the layman, musical theater would generally fall under the “theater” industry, while opera is classical music’s territory; there are some exceptions, but generally, that’s how it plays out). No doubt, opera’s marginal status in popular culture has let much of this lame, ironic or even erroneous labeling go on unchecked.

But the Portland, Ore.–based Vagabond Opera, arriving next week to the Zipper Factory in a hail of sepia and song, actually lives up to its name. Founded six years ago by frontman Eric Stern,Vagabond Opera has been bringing a richly diverse, if distinctly zany, mix of operatic cabaret to musical venues of all kinds both in and outside the United States, straddling genres and doing some serious singing while they’re at it. The six-piece ensemble (which includes violin, musical saw, accordion, sax, cello, bass and percussion and several vocals) presents songs in 12 languages, and in musical traditions ranging from opera and cabaret, to klezmer and Balkan wedding music, wearing costumes, donning foreign accents and trying to evoke, as they call it, an “old world mood.” And while its musical sources come from diverse areas, and the vocal stylings are not always of a strictly classical nature, the rigorous and virtuosic hallmark of formal vocal training is never too far away. Stern, 37, who is trained in the Bel Canto style of operatic singing (as is Vagabond soprano Ursula Knudson), says he got the idea for Vagabond Opera while he was “entrenched” in the opera world, and longing for a less restricted way to practice his love of singing.

“I found myself to be a cog in the machine,” he says, referring to how the opera industry is mainly a repertory system, where singers cycle through the same roles in opera houses around the world, in essence, getting plugged-in to whatever arsenal of standard roles the singer has under his belt. “In some ways you have to be a cog. But for me, it was limiting.”

And while the opera world today seems to be changing, there are still few opportunities for singers to create new roles, or to present operatic singing in contexts outside the concert hall or opera house.

“I didn’t feel that [what I did] was reaching my peers.” This is a truth among young conservatory-trained musicians who are confronted with the reality that most of their friends outside of classical music will never find their way into a concert hall. For classical singers, this prospect is even grimmer than it is for instrumentalists.

When scream-singing, speak-singing and non-singing rule the direction of popular music—not to mention the amount of digital-faking going on with recording technology able to make someone sound like the good singer they are not at the click of a button—it’s hard for the values of classical singing to find a foothold.

In fact, many trained singers who can’t find work in opera, turn to singing for church choirs, a steady gig but one that comes with obvious drawbacks.

There just aren’t a lot of places where the operatic voice fits in. Even worse, many singers, after training classically, simply give up singing altogether, whether for being unwilling to risk their life pursuing a career in opera, or, as Stern points out, because classical training can often (even blatantly) discourage aspiring students, making them afraid to use their voices outside the context of the repertoire.

“You can get paranoid” about how you sound, Stern acknowledges, “and you end up not singing at all. It seems wrong and sad.” But Stern has found an exuberant and satisfying place where operatic vocal technique and popular idioms intersect, allowing his group to perform along side more indie-oriented bands (it will be joined on Tuesday by Boston-based Walter Sikert and the Army of Broken Toys, and New York songstress Adrienne Anemone) while also exposing unlikely audiences to the visceral pleasures of a Bel Canto voice.

For Vagabond Opera, casual atmospheres and classical voices are not mutually exclusive.

> The Vagabond Opera Jan. 13, The Zipper Factory, 336 W. 37th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 212-695-4600; 7, $15.

by Ryan Tracy January 17, 2009 - NY Press

"Letter of Recommendation"

March 19, 2009

I highly recommend Vagabond Opera for a Western Arts Alliance showcase; this group is exactly the kind of music theater ensemble that needs more exposure in the West.

As you may recall, I booked Vagabond Opera to perform in the inaugural season of the concert series at Orange County Great Park. The series had not yet opened by the time we did the advance work in preparation for their concert, and many technical questions regarding the venue were still unresolved while we were arranging the engagement and negotiating the contract. However, Vagabond Opera personnel rose to the challenge; they were completely professional, very accommodating and flexible in making the engagement a success despite the issues we faced in setting up an entirely new venue.

The performance was wonderful; the audience, made up mostly of people who were not familiar with Vagabond Opera, was soon seduced by the ensemble's good music and great stage presence. The Park officials were particularly pleased with how well the artists responded to the site, making the venue part of the show itself, which enhanced the audience's appreciation of the Park as a concert venue.

Our decision to invite Vagabond Opera back to Irvine to play our New Year's Eve concert-party at Irvine Barclay Theatre was based on how well the artists connected with the audience that night at the Park, which demonstrated their superb ability to make each performance a truly special event.

I look forward to hearing Vagabond Opera again soon.

With best regards,
Sandy Robertson
Programming Consultant - Irvine Barclay Theatre

"Review: Vagabonds steal show on 'Mountain Stage'"

Review: Vagabonds steal show on 'Mountain Stage'
By Victoria McCabe
November 15, 2009

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The circus came to town Sunday night in the form of "Mountain Stage's"
opening act, Vagabond Opera.

The concert also featured Madison Violet, Eric Bibb, Brett Dennen, and Sister Hazel, but it was the
dazzling Vagabond Opera who stole the show.

Vagabond Opera's new album, "The Zeitgeist Beckons," blends kooky cabaret with elements of
opera, Eastern European folk, jazz, swing, and klezmer music. The cabaret style was especially
apparent in "Welcome to the Opera," which introduced the musicians, showcased their eclectic stylistic madness, and finished with a sample of Verdi's "Traviata."

Led by operatic tenor and accordion player Eric Stern, the six-piece Portland ensemble was decked
out in colorful costumes fit for Vaudeville. Their set was theatrical, fun, and extremely

They sang, they danced, they joked, they spanked, and had the audience singing and clapping
along the way.

All of the artists returned to the stage for a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi," which
served as the finale to what was one of the more eclectic "Mountain Stage" concerts.
- The Charleston Gazette

"Review: A night at the Seattle International Cabaret Festival"

November 12, 2009
Review: A night at the Seattle International Cabaret Festival
The Seattle International Cabaret Festival spans language, gender, genres and venues.
By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

You might not have known it if you were wandering the streets of downtown Seattle on Wednesday night, but the inaugural edition of the Seattle International Cabaret Festival was going on all around you.

At the Triple Door, Vagabond Opera ("from faraway exotic sunny Portland") was the indisputable crowning glory of the night. This sextet has fine voices, unbelievable musical chops and a huge and humorous stage presence. They know how to dress, how to make an entrance and how to craft an instantly hummable tune. Their ravishing closing number, "Goodnight Moon," was, they said, "born in Seattle" after gigs they'd played here at Northwest Folklife Festival and the Blue Moon Tavern.
- Seattle Times


The Zeitgeist Beckons - New release, May 2009
Vagabond Opera - 2006
Get On The Train - 2003
whatyoudo - 2003

streaming tracks on and



Based in the Pacific Northwest, yet encompassing the world, Vagabond Opera delivers passionate offerings of Bohemian cabaret. Paris hot Jazz, gut bucket swing, Tangos, Ukrainian folk-punk ballads, Klezmer and vigorous originals meet a world of riverboat gambling queens, Turkish belly dancers, and the enigmatic Marlene Dietrich.

Vagabond Opera was created in 2002 by European-trained opera singer and composer Eric Stern. Then disillusioned with the classical opera world, Stern created a new context for opera: Performance on a more intimate scale incorporating not only opera but elements of Weimar Cabaret, Arabic and Balkan forms, and the original music that springs from the ensemble's fertile creative work. This is not your granny's opera, but a visceral artistic ensemble that features powerful instrumental and vocal performances coupled with a highly eclectic and theatrical experience.

Vagabond Opera is at the vanguard of a growing popularity in the Neo-cabaret phenomenon, and through their theatrical performances, lyrics in 13 languages, and an eclectic repertoire, they liberate opera from its usual construct, expanding musical and theatrical biodiversity. Vagabond Opera has performed all over the USA and in Europe. They have been featured on NPR, in the Washington Post and Jazziz Magazine, and have shared stages and players with Pink Martini, Devotchka, The Decemberists, and the Oregon Symphony.

Vagabond Opera can provide a "Larger show" for venues that suit, featuring belly dancers, cabaret and fire dancers and a larger musical ensemble. Please inquire.

Vagabond Opera is represented by Eye for Talent. They have been touring extensively for several years and handle their own tour budget and publicity.