Not everybody with Carnegie Hall-ready classical chops wants to put on a tuxedo and perform for well-mannered, hushed crowds.
Some, like the whimsical masters of Vagabond Opera, want to see people dance, laugh and marvel at some oddball theatrics while they’re costumed on stage.
The exuberant six-piece troupe from Portland, Ore., which plays PAC3 in Carbondale on Thursday, March 21, has built an imaginative sound around a backbone of impeccable musicianship.
The band has ignored the boundaries of genre, in effect liberating opera and classical strings from their elitist ghetto. They’ve blended operatic vocals with far-flung exotic elements from European cabaret, Yiddish theater, Vaudevillian spectacle, along with punk and folk and klezmer into something wholly — and lovably — new.
“There are people like us who are classically trained but don’t want to just go into the classical field,” explains Eric Stern, Vagabond’s tenor frontman, who also plays accordion and piano. “We have these tools and we want to do interesting things with them.”
They refuse to take themselves too seriously, though they are seriously talented musicians.
Stern’s voice, for instance, is an unapologetically honed operatic tenor, and cellist Skip von Kuske would fit as easily alongside the virtuosos at the Aspen Music Festival’s summer program. But instead of taking the high-brow road, they’ve opted to barnstorm around the country in a van playing clubs and small venues like PAC3. They pepper their songs with humor, hum-friendly tunes and danceable beats, though they keep the operatic elements right up front.
Since their debut album in 2003, their act has taken them around the world, and led them to perform with like-minded artists like the Decemberists and DeVotchKa. This spring they’re embarking on their first Colorado tour, also making stops in Denver, Telluride, Crested Butte and Colorado Springs.
Their shows and their albums — most recently 2011’s “Sing for Your Lives” — take the listener on a journey, while crossing continents and eras in style and story. There’s an old world charm about it all — their songs spin fantastic yarns without much of a hipster smirk. There’s the one about Dr. Xerry Gerrymander sailing the skies in his marvelous red balloon in 1873 searching for his lost wife, and the lament from a woman longing for a beard and mustache, all told with dramatic flourishes.
Stern says the collective makes an effort to tell stories, but the style in which they take shape is predictably unpredictable.
“I just find if I keep my ears open that stuff edges its way into my composition,” he explains. “I don’t say, ‘I’m going to write a Romanian gypsy song today!’ But I do listen to a lot of that stuff, so I’ll hear it and forget it, and then Romanian gypsy comes out in the composition.”
Their shows carry an absurdist flair and a charismatic showmanship. The band festoons themselves in costumes with an Eastern European Burning Man burlesque aesthetic — eccentric headwear and facial hair abound.
Asked what to expect out of the show in Carbondale, Stern says, “Costumes, spectacle, witty improvisation, beautiful people, or at least interesting-looking people.”
Along with vocals (in 13 different languages), cello and accordion, the band features tenor saxophone, clarinet, stand-up bass, and drums.
Vagabond Opera, Stern proudly says, is a product of Portland’s 21st century bohemia. The members of the band came together after seeing each other in ensembles around town, in the free-flowing creative scene of Oregon’s biggest city.
“Portland reminds me of what Paris must have been like in the ‘30s,” Stern says. “It’s a vibrant artistic community where people aren’t competitive. People here are interested in creating community.”
In those environs, where experimentation and collaboration grow kudzu-like, it was possible for the six members of Vagabond Opera to find one another and form the musical relationships that drive the group’s singular sound and style.
“We’re really good friends, we have to be,” Stern says. “And I think that comes across. We’re having musical conversations, and enjoy having these conversations with each other.”