Saxophonist, clarinetist, and singer Robin Jackson (All Photos by Daniel Ahrendt)
Ashia Grzesik, vocalist and cellist
Anyone who spends an egregious amount of time online knows what steam-punk is and the Victorian/burlesque infatuation that goes with it. Top hats or bowler hats on every man, elaborate dresses and even more elaborate undergarments for the ladies, and tons of makeup for everyone. Visually, Vagabond Opera have tried their best to look like characters from the daydreams of Tom Waits but don’t manage to pull off the grime inherent in such roles. The same can be said about their overall performance on April Fool’s Day at the Triple Door. They maintain a truly impressive professional skill set of operatic and popular vocal ability, instrumental chops, and charming song writing. However, the world of cabaret maintains its mysticism through the dirty, red light realities of the performers, or at least the performer’s ability to illustrate that mysticism. Instead, Vagabond Opera come across as a group of very well-trained, undoubtedly talented theater and opera geeks, not a circus populated by extraordinary street rats.
(Left) Accordion player and tenor Eric Stern (Right) Portland, Oregon belly dancer Karolina
The evening was split into two identical dinner performances, one beginning at 7:30 and the other at 10. Just in case you’ve never been to the Triple Door, it’s a classy place. Tiered dining table booth seating stretches from the front to the back with small tables lining the room. You’re escorted from the lobby area next to a massive fish tank by a waiter to your assigned seats and supplied with a bottle of water and a dinner menu. If purchasing the ticket to attend the show had you scraping the bottom of your wallet, drinking or eating here will be unlikely. For instance, the cheapest, strongest booze available is a $6.50 shot of 151 (not that that’s what everyone wants, it was just an observation). That aside, everything brought to the tables around me smelled and looked delicious.
(Left) Cellist Skip vonKuske (Right) Tenor and accordion player Eric Stern
Perhaps Vagabond Opera has a different stage etiquette for performing in affluent situations as compared to their more dive-barish shows. Maybe they only play affluent settings. Unless they were really restraining themselves from revealing uncouth, raucous behavior, the latter is probably more accurate. The group was started by Eric Stern in 2002, himself a “European-trained opera singer and composer” and incorporates five other musicians of similar caliber. A lanky Charlie Chaplin by the name of Xander Almeida aka Dr. Xander Gerrymander performs somewhat odd acts of silent humor about the stage and a few numbers where accompanied by burlesque belly dancing from a Portland performer named Karolina.
All of this schooled skill on stage led to an impressive set of vocalizations from Stern and cellist/vocalist Ashia Grzesik and jazz/folk instrumentation from everyone involved. As a whole, the group is attuned to Weimar era Germany, a 1920’s musical and cultural phenomenon that gave birth to Kurt Weil and the cabaret atmosphere that thrived in Berlin before the rise of Hitler. Also mixed in are Balkan melodies and lyrical material “in 13 languages”. They love what they were doing and much of the packed room did too if all the laughter and hoots were any indication. The crowd was visibly older and audibly familiar with the traditional music elements at work around them.
Dr. Xander Gerrymander in a sketch about being a…polka junkie
The result of this nostalgic love for the cabaret spirit being engrained in the performance of a classically trained group is double-edged. You will recognize historical expertise without first hand accounts, musical puns instead of blunt double entendre. If you long to appreciate the musical styles that surround cabaret as a form, you will enjoy Vagabond Opera. Just don’t expect anything more than a beautiful petting zoo. The real jungle is probably several cigarettes and a few alleys away.