Rock Opera.  Seriously.
Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 10:11AM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 28, 2008

Opera performed on electric guitars? Sounds like a seriously bad idea, says Peter Kiesewalter, founder of the East Village Opera Company.

"If someone were to say to me, 'Check these guys out. They do opera with a rock band,' I don't think I would go," he says, laughing. "I don't think I have an open enough mind."

Kiesewalter (l), Ross, and the band
It's a pretty interesting remark, coming from someone who has been turning the music world on its ear by transforming the arias of Verdi and Puccini into hard-driving rock anthems. But even though the very idea is enough to give most rockers (not to mention the average opera fan) an aneurysm, the East Village Opera Company's wild, amped-up covers of such 19th-century hits as "La Donna e Mobile" and "Habanera" have been met with surprising enthusiasm by headbangers and opera connoisseurs alike.

"We're just playing this music the way the composers would write it if they were alive today," says Kiesewalter, whose 11-piece band (which includes two singers and a string quartet) will perform music by Mozart, Wagner and others composers Saturday at Lisner Auditorium.

Opera really doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves, he says. It was the pop music of its day and dealt with the same issues (sex, love, sex and more sex) that rock-and-roll does. Drag it out of the culture bunker and into the nightclub, he says, and opera loses none of its vitality; in fact, it seems very much at home.

"Rock and opera go very well together: They're both overblown, massive spectacles," Kiesewalter says. "The sheer size of opera lends itself well to what I call the 'majesty' of rock. And those composers were the rock stars of their time. There was a lot of mystique about them, and their premieres were anticipated as much as a Beatles record. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to compare a composer like Mozart with someone like Prince."

The East Village Opera Company, of course, isn't the first group to drag opera into the modern world. It's almost a cliche to mount the classics in contemporary settings -- a trend pioneered by the director Peter Sellars, who once staged Handel's "Orlando" partly on Mars. Carmen has been reincarnated as a guerrilla fighter, Rigoletto as a New York bartender and, most recently, director Baz Luhrmann brought Puccini's "La Boheme" to Broadway, updated to the 1950s and brimming with references to beatniks and Marlon Brando.

But the problem with those updates, Kiesewalter says, is that everyone's afraid to touch the music itself. "They go to great lengths to try to make it relevant, and yet the most important aspect is the music," he says. "There will be a party scene in 'La Traviata,' and it's set in the 21st century, but people are partying to a waltz, played by a string section! And every effort that they've made to modernize it falls completely on its face."

That's too bad, Kiesewalter says, because opera flourishes when played on modern electric instruments. But injecting Bizet, Handel and Purcell with everything from hip-hop to disco beats takes a deft touch.

"You have to maintain a balance between tradition and renewal, with equal amounts of respect," he says. "Rock is as sophisticated as even the most refined classical music, and it takes someone who has experience playing it to realize how important it is to get it right."

Despite a solid background in rock and classical music (he has a degree in clarinet and composition from Ottawa University), Kiesewalter came late to opera, which he says always left him cold.  But in 2001, while working as a house composer for ABC television in New York, he was asked to write the soundtrack to the film "Kiss of Debt," about an aspiring opera singer who works for a mob boss. Because the actor who played the role, Tyley Ross, wasn't classically trained, Kiesewalter set the arias as rock songs.

The music turned out so well that he and Ross eventually recorded a full album of arias, putting a band together in 2004 and debuting at Joe's Pub in New York. "The response was overwhelming," he says, "and it caught us completely by surprise. There were punk rockers in ripped jeans and older people who revere opera. I thought opera purists would throw stuff at us, but they got a bigger kick out of it than anybody. There were subscribers to the Met there, singing along. They knew every word to every aria."

Expect hard-rocking wildness Saturday, when the band will rethink such songs as a love duet in Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and the virtuosic Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Don't know opera? Don't worry, Kiesewalter says.

"It's great when the opera cognoscenti come to see us," he says. "But there's something in this music that anyone can respond to. Maybe it's simple: People are suckers for a great melody."

East Village Opera Company Appearing Saturday at Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H streets NW. Show starts at 8.

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