A black-and-white accordion acts as a pair of panting lungs — opening and closing, fiercely ousting air, reaching high notes in rapid fashion. Its player, adorned with a curled mustache and top hat, leads a group musicians who project intricate sounds from a fiddle, stand-up bass, cello, saxophone and operatic-chorus.
The Pocket Watch Tour, the first of Vagabond Opera’s narrative-music experiments, consists of seven musicians and a set of dancers who will take the stage June 20 at downtown Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre.
“There’s a storyline going through it,” said Eric Stern, who founded the group and acts a member, director and composer. “One of the things I’ve strived for is to showcase everyone in the ensemble. We are all trying to create an energetic exchange with the audience with a show filled with old-world flare.”
The Portland-based band showcases European cabaret, vintage Americana, belly dance, neo-classical opera and old-world Yiddish theater. Songs are sung in 13 languages, while bandmates play various instruments.
Founded in 2002 by Stern, a European-trained opera singer, he says first timers can expect an intimate performance with elements of Weimar Cabaret, Arabic and Balkan forms and original music.
“This is not your granny’s opera,” Stern said. “It’s a visceral artistic ensemble that features powerful instrumental and vocal performances coupled with a highly eclectic and theatrical experience.”
Already interesting by name, Stern came up with a title he thought would “attract people.” Initially derived from his admiration for the production, “The Threepenny Opera” Stern fell in love with the name after leaving the world of opera and traveling the country with an accordion, his partner and a dog.
“I street sang and played the accordion,” he said. “As far as I knew, nobody else was doing that. It was very freeing.
“In my own mind, there was a strain of wandering attached to it. I loved it, a lot.”
It was a time when the structured world of opera and its training became overwhelming.
“I very much loved and still love opera, but I felt bound by the institution,” Stern said.
During his European travels he discovered a street performing culture, which was absent in the states.
“[Street performing] is not looked down on there,” Stern said. “I never wanted to look like I was begging; I wanted to be doing a weird art installation.”
Sitting on a corner, however mundane, he watched people speed by, cross the street and hurry to work.
“I saw that playing music can transform a space,” Stern said. “Having been on stages for so long, with a very specific construct, I needed a way to reclaim the fact that music can happen anywhere.”
Vagabond Opera was never small – four to five originators sparked the creative force. Now, the Pocket Watch Tour showcases musicians, singers as well as set of dancers.
Annie Rosen — Dell Arte International School of Physical Theater graduate – has years of street performance under her belt and brought Pocket Watch’s storyline to life.
“She is great with bringing elements together and weaving them into a plot,” Stern said. “We’ve been want to try something new for awhile. It’s the next step to our evolution.”
The band is also working Karolina Lux, an award-winning dancer who choreographs the show’s dance team.
“Often we’ll just contact dancers in each town that we play and integrate them into the show,” Stern said. “But these dancers will be traveling with us. In fact, they are rehearsing downstairs right now.”
The opera debuted the 90-minute set on June 14 in Eugene, Ore.
“By the time we’re in Petaluma, we’ll be hitting our stride,” Stern said. “We’ll get all the kinks out.”
Stern grew up with a lust for music due to the creativity around him. His parents were both classical pianists. After they divorced, Stern’s mother remarried, this time to a man who introduced Stern to a world of folk and his book and record store.
“I’d wander the isles as a kid and I didn’t understand the groupings of music,” Stern said.
Often just by the looks of their covers, Stern would take home albums, diving into everything from classical to heavy metal.
“I had everything from Beethoven to the soundtrack of Plant of the Apes,” Stern said. “It was the weirdest and craziest combination of stuff.”
His grandfather was also a violinist, his grandmother encouraged liberal arts and his family supported his commitment to creativity.
“I still call my mother and talk about music,” he said. “I also live in a place that encourages good music. I see Portland as Paris in the 1930s.
Dancer Rachel Brice who “is one of the most famous” and Lux moved from San Francisco to lead a life of entertainment. Living close by – the saxophonist lives down the street from Stern and Lux lives in the same house – Stern encourages close quarters and endless imagination.
“Take Guns N’ Roses. Before they were famous they all lived in the same house,” Stern said. “Then they bought mansions and I think their work suffered for it.
“We all make time in our lives and carve out space for art,” Stern said, who directs the bunch but refuses to micromanage.
“I’ve always been taught, and believe, you gather good people and let them be in charge. As a director, I guide energy and allow people to do their best; to feed off each other.”
The creative forum allows for sounds and sights unseen in Stern’s years as an opera singer. Starting out in the school choir, Stern apprenticed at an opera company and at 18, the president offered him voice lessons.
“Before then it was just a fun thing that I did,” Stern said. “I started in the chorus, got a little part and then got bigger roles.”
Ten years later, Stern remembers the pampered life like always having a well-lit dressing room.
“I really enjoyed my time doing Western traditional opera music, but I wanted to compose, and I didn’t see a clear a venue for that,” Stern said. “I just invented something to make it work for me.”
The band hopes to generate a diverse crowd. Stern’s vision: immigrants flocking the opera house just like the good ol’ days.
“Whether we achieve that or not, that’s my hope,” he said. “It’s for all levels and all classes.”
Patrons can expect what Stern classifies as neo-cabaret during the act on Thursday.
“When people think of cabaret they think of dinner-theatre with a lot of senior citizens; maybe jazz hands and plastic top hats,” he said, laughing. “But real cabaret has a darker strain running through it.”
The group is also excited to revisit Petaluma, only 16 miles from Novato.
“Last time I saw a guy outside playing the piano on the corner,” Stern said.
Members made friends during their last stopover and plan on staying overnight with locals this time around.
When asked if he ordinarily wears his over-the-top apparel, he admits that while some bandmates identify with the style, his garb is just for show.
“I’m not like I am on stage either,” Stern said. “It’s a very incisive; like a split personality. It’s a freeing thing.”
Ideas are always in fruition, allowing Vagabond Opera members to thrive off each other’s strengths and originality.
The group delivers offerings of Bohemian cabaret for young and old, including jazz, gut-bucket swing, tangos, Ukrainian folk-punk ballads, klezmer, original music and Turkish belly dancers. The show offers a new wave of opera, with lusty voices and rich theatrical performances, liberating opera from its usual construct.
Vagabond Opera has four full-length albums and has performed internationally, with acts such as The Decembrists, Balkan Beat Box, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the Oregon Symphony.
Vagabond Opera’s Pocket Watch Tour will make its way to Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre on Thursday, June 20 at 8 p.m. The venue is located at 23 Petaluma Blvd., North. Petaluma, Calif. 94952. Tickets are $16.
Contact Nicole Baptista at email@example.com.