Vagabond Opera at Elk Creek Cafe

MILLHEIM – The success of the area’s burlesque troupe, Billtown Burlesque, has proven that there’s a demand in Central Pa. for cabaret-related performances, long after the first cabaret venue opened in Paris in 1881. It turns out, however, that this resurgence of 1800s-style variety shows isn’t just a local phenomenon, it’s part of a trend across the nation.

“There’s a whole cabaret circus movement on the West Coast,” Eric Stern, founder of Vagabond Opera said. “We feed off that … out of that wellspring of inspiration. We want to bring that to the rest of the country and paint the whole country circus.”

When Stern, an operatic tenor, started standing on street corners with his accordion singing opera, he had no idea how popular his act would become.

“No, I never thought about it,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate it. I just wanted to do what I do and … it just worked out that way.”

Stern’s Portland-based music troupe, Vagabond Opera, is filled with a roster of cabaret all-stars that come from all over.

“We try to get some of the best talent,” he said. “Portland [Ore.] is wonderful for that. We draw from all over the country.”

The band features Jason Flores, Ashia Grzesik, Mark Burdon, Robin Jackson, Skip vonKuske and Dr. Xander Gerrymander, aka Xander Almeida. Each member does so many things, that it would take way too much space to list them all.

“[The group is] a thrilling combination of top-notch musicians wedded with spectacle and costumes,” Stern said. “We’re not an ensemble or band that stands there and stares at our feet while we play. The idea is to be engaging.”

The band has no shortage of ways to keep the audience’s attention, with its mix of Bohemian cabaret, “Paris hot jazz, gut bucket swing, tangos, Ukranian folk-punk ballads, klezmer,” as well as Turkish bellydancing.

But amidst all the excitement, Stern maintains that the heart of the group is something very traditional.

“The center of Vagabond Opera is the naked human voice,” he said.

And even though the group has “opera” in the name, it isn’t opera through-and-through.

“I love conventional opera,” Stern said. “But with it comes hokey scenery and elitism, in some ways, and often stuffiness – but not always, for sure. [Vagabond Opera] is the best of opera distilled and surrounded by original music, by jazz, by exciting Eastern European gypsy music – all rolled into a cabaret package.”

Along with playing musical styles from across the globe, the band also has songs in 13 different languages. Stern attributes the international flavor of the group partly to his background in opera and partly to his realization that most of the people in the United States are immigrants.

“It started to be useful to think about we came from – where I came from,” he said. “There’s traditions there to still be used, to have as colors in our paintbox, tools in our tool box.”

With so many tools and so much talent in the group, one can imagine that recording sessions could get a little crazy. Stern says, however, that there’s a method to the madness.

“We don’t let everybody be in charge,” he said. “We talk a lot first. The biggest discussion is the song selection. Once that’s done … we kind of do what Skip says. Our cellist, Skip, has produced the last couple of albums … when he did the first one, he did a great job. It’s important to have someone in charge. What I learned from Skip is that he would approach it a lot like painting a picture. He would say, ‘Let’s get the broad strokes first and we’ll fill in the details as we go.”

The band’s latest album, “Sing For Your Lives,” was released in 2011.

Stern has several ties to Pa. He lived in Philadelphia and studied opera at the Delaware Valley Opera Co.; his father, Victor Canniere, lives in Wellsboro; and his brother, Andre Canniere, who’s now a professional musician living in London, graduated from Mansfield University.

So, Stern won’t be too far from family when the Vagabond Opera performs at 5 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Elk Creek Cafe, 100 W. Main St.

The multi-talented musician-performer said that attendees can expect “to have a lot of fun.”

“It will be a balls-to-the-wall Eastern European party,” he said. “They can expect to be uplifted and taken away to absinthe-tinged regions and bordellos and really engage in the sublimity of our musical concoction.”

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