Vagabond Opera
Reckons as the Zeitgeist Beckons

By Joel Okida

Vagabond Opera plays the Edison on Tuesday, February 23, 8pm. Dress appropriately!

Vagabond_Opera.jpgAs the traveling ensemble, Vagabond Opera, makes its way up and down the west coast, they will soon park here and bring an entertainment to our fine, but fickle and financially-strapped city; an evening which promises to be filled with tongue-in-cheekiness, cheery chicanery, and perhaps a skosh of the scoundrel. Performing selections from the their last recording, The Zeitgeist Beckons, as well as offerings from two previous CDs, the staunchly acoustic Vagabond Opera brings thrills and chills in their "opera in four acts, maybe even five." A tantalizing tango, a tarantella tarriance, a wandering waltz, and who knows, maybe even a triple-measured mazurka will be performed with full operatic interpretation and expert instrumental-attended accompaniment. VO will perform at the Edison, an architectural time warp with its provenance rooted in the Golden Age of Hollywood, in what was once the Edison boiler room of the 1910 Higgins Building. The group will command the Art Deco venue and stage and transport you away from the ills of the misbegotten body politic rattling the rafters, and then the cages of all those within high C-throwing distance.

From Portland, Oregon, band leader, accordionist, and tenor vocalist, Eric Stern responded to a few inquiries in between home state engagements.

The latest recording is a concept album made up of original songs and arrangements of a varied selection of other composers so I posed the question, "The Zeitgeist Beckons contains songs by Jacques Brel, Tom Waits, Shostakovich, and two guys named Stern and Jackson. As far as I know, they never all played together. How did the concept of this opera recording come into being?"

‘We can't omit songs by our wonderful bassist either, Jason Flores, who has penned at least two of the album's songs," Eric reminded me. "The Zeitgeist Beckons emerged organically from our onstage work and our belief that the Zeitgeist--that is, the spirit of our times--calls out for some of the wonderful cabaret and opera of the past as well as a forward looking musical take on these genres that will propel them, our listeners, and the drivel-inundated masses towards a more biodiverse and juicier musical landscape."

I wondered, "With Mango (Lesley Kernochan, former band member) taking leave, you went through a transitional stage with Fishtank Ensemble singer, Ursula Knudson, filling in. With the arrival of Ashia Grzesik, are there great adjustments when losing a second sax player and adding a second cellist? Although all three singers have operatic voices, did you make specific changes to allow for their individual ranges, personalities, eye make-up, etc.?

Eric responded, "I wouldn't say we were ever in much of a transitional stage with anyone "filling in." Ursula is one of our singers and sings with us on occasion. She and Ashia are both wonderful and present sometimes different, sometimes parallel strengths. There are some adjustments, certainly, to arranging with different instruments, but you see I've always thought of us as an orchestra putting on an Puccini is still Puccini whether it's Mirella Freni singing it or Renata just have the different vocal colors and interpretations, and yes, personalities. Some seasons you do Boheme, some Turandot, but if the instruments are different it's still Puccini, or in this case, Vagabond Opera shining through. The eye-make-up is better now."

Vocalist, cellist and newest member of the band, Ashia Grzesik, added her own response to her experience in joining the ensemble. "How did you come to be the latest addition to VO? And has it been a difficult challenge to adapt to the band?"

"I heard about Vagabond Opera through the musical community when I first moved to Portland over a year ago. It turned out that Skip vonKuske, a member of Portland Cello Project, another project that I was starting to become a part of, is also the cellist for Vagabond Opera. We found a kinship in each other's cello playing and just as quickly became two pea-in-the-pod chums. I do owe Skip for his lobbying efforts on the behalf of my audition. Within a couple of months, I was singing a very highly difficult aria in the VO rehearsal space and playing Balkan cello. Moments after I closed the door behind me leaving the audition, I found a message on my phone inviting me to perform with them."

We come to, perhaps, the rhetorical question of band adaption being "...a difficult challenge," Ashia, tongue in and out of cheek, literally, revealed this:

"No, Darhling...really, it was cake.... and I smeared it all over the mustache of my lover and licked it off. (Ed's. note- I'm going to audition to be this woman's cello or possibly a moustache.) There were challenges, of course musical ones, but that is something you always face with any new group. I can say that I've stretched myself more musically, instrumentally, theatrically, and vocally in the last year or so with this band than I have in the past, and I'm nowhere near being done with that."

She added, "What I found the most challenging was finding my own space as well as the group space of being the newest female singer. At first, it wasn't clear whether I was filling in a gap or creating a new, living, breathing beast. I chose the latter- there was no other way. It began with just learning the songs the band already played, but I started to add burlesque touches, theatrical nuances, costumery, and the guys started asking and welcoming me to add my own songs. It's become a creative, musical ebb and flow, and this beast is pouring her imagination and artistry into it."

Vagabond Opera recently played a music-fashion-cultural gathering in San Francisco where the era-conscious theme provoked attendees to dress themselves in Edwardian (and the other Edward: Gorey) and Victorian costume as well as the garb of the extrapolated cyber lovechild: steampunk. I looked back and asked Eric, "The Edwardian Ballroom show in SF brings to mind the observation that some of your audience likes to join in on the VO train and be part of the spectacle. Edwardian, Victorian, steampunk and other vintage-costumed fans crowd around the stage. Do you think the current state of the country (world) creates a real need for people to escape this theater of the absurd and dive into your more pleasant one?"

"What theater of the Absurd? Facebook?" Eric batted back. "More like theater of the mundane, or with reality television, no theater at all. Human nature dictates that we section ourselves off into tribes. I don't know that we are carrying the banner of the steampunk-vintage tribe, but if we are uniting people with costume and music for the cause of creativity--and costume and music--then I accept that. Our U.S. cultural landscape is dull these days so of course the zeitgeist is beckoning for a more engaged involvement in interesting spectacle...and interesting music. But we, this ensemble, are a RESULT of the dearth of zesty toothy music; we have felt its lack and try to fill the void for ourselves so we don't commit suicide out of boredom. Finally, I don't know that we are more pleasant. We're out to have an adventure with an audience but sometimes these journeys involve passion, betrayal, and finally redemption."

A new and ambitious project for Eric and VO is the upcoming premiere of his original opera, Queen of Knives (opening at the Interstate Cultural Firehouse Center in Portland, Oregon, May 7-15th). The announcement for the event explains further: Queen of Knives is a full-length opera, written in English; starring singers from Portland Opera, Opera Theater Oregon, Willamette Concert Opera, and Cirque du Soleil. It is the only opera composed incorporating Balkan, Arabic, Romanian, jazz, flamenco, Greek Rembetiko, and klezmer musical styles. The internationally acclaimed ensemble Vagabond Opera (from Portland) accompanies the show live on stage as the pit orchestra, with band members Ashia Grzesik and Eric Stern playing dramatic roles; and world class circus performers helping to set the stage for our little 10-in-1 melodrama. "Are there already plans for the soon-to-premiere VO opera, Queen of Knives, to travel beyond Portland?

Eric proclaims, "Yes. I want to ignite the world with it, that's my initial plan; the rest is commentary."

Vagabond Opera is: Eric Stern: vocals, accordion, piano; Robin Jackson: vocals, tenor saxophone; Ewalt "Skip" vonKuske: cello, vocals; Jason (Krivo) Flores: bass; Mark Burdon: drums; Ashia Grzesik: vocals, cello

The Zeitgeist Beckons (2009) Vagabond Opera Records and more information is available at: or

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.