We were transported to the seamy slums of Paree, Venetian drinking holes and cousin Harry’s bar mitzvah even before the second act. How does the six-piece Vagabond Opera do this? If you ask Eric Stern, the founder, he might suggest that there’s a remarkable vibe in the Portland, Oregon music community, where the band is based. But what makes this particular band tick? Their imaginations fuel not just Stern’s originals - there is a serious effort to make their stage personas visually exciting, and if you like edge-of-your seat surprises, they’ve nailed that too.

Vagabond Opera is what the names implies, but more. The eye-catching players dress like actors in a black and white American film, set in the 1940s. Or, then again, they could be drifters from the roaring 20s. Picture Eric’s vest and striped trousers and guest performer Ursula Knudson’s slinky sleeves, which swayed like a buoy as she bowed her saw. (Yes, a saw! She came in second in the 2004 International Saw Fest.). She crooned in French like a native – perhaps her former street singing stint enabled her to simulate Piaf’s patter. Susan, in polka dots, played her modest drum kit with precision.

Though Stern was certainly a contender for the professional operatic life, in Vagabond Opera acts, he is no second fiddle. He gets to bellow, kibitz, compose and comp to his heart’s content – on stage the native Philadelphian played accordion and piano with flare.

Even during the earlier numbers they all took delight in self-effacing antics, but were also happy to spend the night making new friends with old world melodies and modes. Even the room played a big part in the ambience: Stern was utterly enthralled with Chicago’s Old Town School, which has a long history and provides classes for people of all ages and cultural interests.

“A community supporting music – what is this, Europe?” he quipped, to an explosion of laughter.

‘Merci Django’ paid tribute to the mysterious Russian witch Baba Yaga. The instrumental build was spiked with swarthy saxophone, sprawling accordion and jeering bass. ‘Ganef,’ which means “thief” in Yiddish was based on an adage: “If you kiss a thief, count your teeth,” a theme that gave the sparring vocalists lots of comic leverage.

Ursula showed off her range, drifting from coy soprano to gutsy contralto. ‘Deux Amantes’ took us to the Left Bank and many lands beyond when guest artist Karolina Lux performed an invigorating Balkan belly dance.

In between the numbers, we got to hear instrumental solos and they all shined on. It was back to the bank when Ursula sang Piaf’s signature tune, ‘Milord.’ The dreamy Tin Pan Alley lyrics of ‘Black Rose’ formed a great contrast. Stern described his diva: “She can shoot an apple with her toes/Wears a tattoo of a rose…” Then Karolina enhanced the already mesmerizing ‘Minoushe,’ a traditional Turkish tune, which was laden with jagged key signatures, exotic scales and a contemporary jazz finish.

There was more European cacophony with the closing number of the first set, ‘King of the Gypsies’. Karolina was now dressed in sheaths of earth tones, a golden tiara, and a two-piece. Twisting her chalk white gloves, she hurled her heaving torso in front of the male band members, who, surprisingly, didn’t miss a beat. In fact, Eric’s accordion solo was mournful and full of grace.

After a brief intermission, the band continued their affection for world music with ‘Romanian Hora,’ another clever fusion. But this was no run-of-the mill hora – this one was pumped with schmaltz and steroids.

The wry ‘Chess Fiends’ was actually drawn from Eric’s experience - as a strolling musician he ended up face-to-face with some fanatics. “The Kings are all slain and nobody cares and all the time the organ grinds on…”

The next numbers include more tongue and cheek, a generous smattering of Italiano and Eric’s hilarious incantation about wishing to be Marlene Dietrich. There was a definite spirit of hell raising and rebellion that enchanted this audience. If you crave an instant party, this band delivers. And the give and take between the musicians and even between the band and the audience, which included many repeat fans, was also electrifying.

After some incredible solos, the band returned to play the embracing ‘Goodnight Moon/Russian Jazz Waltz.’ Vagabond Opera’s set tonight started on a high note and ended on a note just as high. If we had “raised a glass”, as ‘Sing for Your Lives’ suggested, it would have been shattered by the mere intensity of the evening. But whether you prefer the word “Cheers,” “Skol” or "L’Chaim,” their closing toast felt universal.


The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com

















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