The Restless Opera Company


By Alexander Gelfand

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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 Stern 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 stentorian 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 is a writer living in New York City.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.