You’ve heard opera, and you’ve heard rock, but you’ve never heard opera rocked like the East Village Opera Company.
Over the past five years, this powerhouse ensemble — comprising a five-piece band, a string quartet and two outstanding vocalists — has created electric, hard-hitting arrangements of many of opera’s “greatest hits.” At 8 p.m. May 2, the East Village Opera Company will make its St. Louis debut in a special, one-night-only performance as part of the Edison Theatre OVATIONS! Series.
The East Village Opera Company was co-founded by singer Tyley Ross and arranger/multi-instrumentalist Peter Kiesewalter.
Ross — who also is an actor and a singer-songwriter — began performing in his early teens and was handpicked by Pete Townshend to play the title character in the Canadian production of The Who’s “Tommy.” He later starred on Broadway in “Miss Saigon” and, in 2001, was cast in the Canadian film “Kiss of Debt” as an aspiring opera singer under the thumb of a crime boss.
Kiesewalter, who earned a classical performance degree in clarinet from Ottawa University, is a former musical director for New York’s “The Bottom Line’s Downtown Messiah,” a seasonal presentation that recasts Handel’s oratorio for pop-music performers. In 2001, he was working as a house composer at ABC-TV when he was approached to create contemporary settings of traditional arias for “Kiss of Debt.”
“Peter agreed to do one song initially,” Ross said, “but we had such a good time that we quickly recorded 15 songs.”
In 2003, Ross and Kiesewalter mastered those extra tracks and self-released “La Donna,” the first East Village Opera Company album. Brash and inventive, it featured classic arias — such as “La Donna e Mobile,” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” and “Vesti la Giubba,” from Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” — interpreted as everything from disco to bossa nova to arena rock.
In March 2004, the East Village Opera Company made its live debut before a small crowd at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. “The reaction was unbelievable,” Ross said. “From that one show, we had national press virtually overnight. Within a couple months, we were selling the place out. Within a year, we had signed a deal with Universal Classics.”
For the group’s 2005 self-titled major label debut, Ross and Kiesewalter recruited female vocalist AnnMarie Milazzo for tracks such as “Au Fond du Temple Saint,” from Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” and “Ebben? Ne Andro Lontana,” from Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally.”
The album was produced by Neil Dorfsman, a three-time Grammy Award winner who previously worked with Sting, Dire Straits, Paul McCartney, Bjork and others. String arrangements were recorded in Prague by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra featuring lead violinist Pauline Kim.
By embracing what Kiesewalter calls “the pomposity of rock and the pomposity of opera” without demeaning or satirizing either form, the East Village Opera Company succeeds where countless other classical-crossover efforts have failed.
“We have a profound love and respect for the opera,” Kiesewalter said. “But it’s so dramatic, so over the top by today’s standards that it cannot be delivered with a straight face. You need a little bit of irreverence in it.”
“With modern recording technology and a wide variety of musical styles at our disposal, our goal has been to approach these songs the way we feel the composers would were they alive today,” Ross said.
Tickets — $30 to the public; $25 for seniors, faculty and staff; and $18 for students and children — are available at the Edison Theatre Box Office and through all MetroTix outlets. For more information, call 935-6543 or e-mail Edison@wustl.edu.