Music Review: East Village Opera Company – Olde School

The operatic tradition has always had a place in rock and pop. Elvis Presley and the Platters' Tony Williams, Pat Benatar and Heart's Ann Wilson, metal's Ozzy Osbourne and pop-rock's Dennis De Young, and of course Freddie Mercury, are all singers who have adopted, at certain times and to one degree or another, opera's highly controlled vocal techniques rooted deep in the body.

At the same time, bands and arrangers have utilized orchestras, mellotrons, samplers, synthesizers, and dense, powerful vocal layerings to capture in popular music the bombastic drama of composers like Wagner and Verdi. Just think of the Beatles' late, highly orchestrated experiments, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," The Who's "Mini-Opera" and Tommy, Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," and almost anything from Led Zeppelin's peak period.

The East Village Opera Company comes from the other direction, taking famous themes and arias from classic operas and crafting variously flavored pop music around them. Their adaptations, while often clever, are not mere exercises, but really enjoyable music in their own right.

Producer-arranger Peter Kiesewalter and the group have a fine knack for finding modern-day settings for timeless themes without the self-conscious slickness you sometimes find in pop-classical crossover projects. The opening track, a pastiche of Wagner, Led Zeppelin, and Rush, is something of an exception. But overall the music has a fairly consistent sensibility. One gets the sense that the East Village Opera Company is a band, no less than The Beatles or Black Sabbath were.

Granted, this band has a bevy of guest artists in addition to its core of three singers and excellent musicians (they carry three string players when on the road): a pedal steel player on "As You Were Then" adapted from Bellini's Norma, soprano star Nicole Cabell on "Brindisi Libera (Pop the Cork)" from Verdi's La Traviata, a very effective children's chorus on "Soldiers" from Gounod's Faust, and more. There are touches of jazz, funk, and even country, and a bit of schmaltz of the sort you get from operatic pop singers like Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman.

But the singers don't sing like opera singers, most of the time, nor like opera singers trying to sing pop music, but simply like very good pop singers. And some of the opera themes are pretty well disguised. My sense is that a pop music fan completely ignorant of opera would likely enjoy this disc, although less so than someone familiar with opera. As such it's not the kind of thing that would tend to draw a potential fan into the world of opera.

But I don't get the feeling that's what the group is aiming for. I think they're aiming, like any band, to earn fans, to do something different or exceptional, to put on a good show, and maybe sell some recorded music in the process. I for one am looking forward to the next opportunity to see them live.