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Vagabond Opera to challenge expectations

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Eric Stern founded Vagabond Opera in 2002 and looks for new ways to combine operatic styles with music from around the world. Courtesy photo

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Members of the band Vagabond Opera are shown, from back row left, Jason Flores, Skip vonKuske and Mark Burdon, with, front row left, Eric Stern, Ashia Grzesik and Robin Johnson. The band will perform at the Barns of Rose Hill at 8 p.m.Wednesday. Courtesy photo


By Josette Keelor

Their opera background is obvious, but they're not opera. Their gypsy influences are apparent, but they're not gypsies.

Influenced by music from around the world, Vagabond Opera is anything but expected, and Wednesday it will carry its calliope to Berryville and pitch its figurative tents at the Barns of Rose Hill.

On the group's 2011 album, "Sing For Your Lives!" there's a hint of everything from "Les Miserables" and "Fiddler on the Roof," to the late Freddie Mercury's theatrics.

And then there are some that are tough to describe at all, like its song "Hanumonsoon," which sounds like it hails from northern Africa, until a saxophone takes it on a jazz tangent and accordions have their say Cajun-style.

"What I look forward to is the musical conversation that we have on stage and that we have with the audience," operatic tenor and founding member Eric Stern said by phone recently.

Based in Portland, Ore., the bohemian cabaret ensemble features Stern on accordion and piano, Jason Flores on upright and electric bass and various guitars, Ashia Grzesik on vocals and cello, Mark Burdon on drums, Skip vonKuske on cello and Robin Jackson on violin, saxophone, vocals, Australian digeredoo and percussion instruments.

French singer and Carolina Lux belly dancer Ursula Knudson will join in as a guest artist, Stern said by phone recently.

"So that's the exciting part," he said. "She's toured with us before."

When you play with people, he said, "There's a cohesion that develops and a trust."

Planning to stop in Clarke County on its tour up the coast, he said the group has never been to the valley before. The closest they've been was Washington and Baltimore, he said.

"I like playing big cities, but I prefer coming to communities like this," he said. "That just seems lovely."

He said he looks forward to entertaining a crowd that can appreciate art and plans to perform music from the group's four albums, particularly its latest.

"We're always developing new material," he said.

"I think more than that, we've just moved more and more into original music," he said. "Our latest album is all original music."

Though its roots are in opera, and Stern's influences include Puccini and Verdi, he said among others, he also draws from jazz great Duke Ellington and French singer Edith Piaf.
"Always liked her," he said. Among more recent artists, he said, "I like Fun, and they remind me of Queen, who I like very much."

A fan favorite is the song "Marlene Dietrich," he said, which pays tribute to German-American film actress and singer by proclaiming, "I wish I was Marlene Dietrich. / I wish that I had sex appeal."

"People love that song," Stern said.

The group formed in 2002 out of Stern's love for the opera world, but his desire to do something unique with it "while still having the voice as the central focus."

"I like to think of this as opera distilled," he said. It combines the very best elements of opera with those of western music, he said, with "the visceral power of the naked voice."

And, he added, "The real use of the fine arts and the subtlety that comes with that."

Vagabond Opera will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Barns of Rose Hill, at 95 Chalmers St. in Berryville. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 540-955-2004 or visit www.barnsofrosehill.org.



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