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.