Vagabond Opera mixes dark, Eastern European cabaret with steampunk, klezmer, pop and jazz. - Photo courtesy of Ben Z. Mund Ph

Not your grandmother's opera

Imagine Tom Waits meets Edith Piaf in a rockin' Parisian nightclub, throw in a theatrical mix of dark cabaret and you'll be close to Vagabond Opera's eclectic spectacle of sights and sounds.

"The bane of our existence is trying to tell people what we sound like," says Robin Jackson, the Portland ensemble's sax player. He also plays clarinet, marimba, didgeridoo and drums.

Jackson and Vagabond Opera co-founder Eric Stern met on Halloween in 2002.

"That was the beginning of what the group is today," Jackson says. "We shared a vision for creating more of a cabaret ensemble with dancers, costumes and audience interaction. Living in Portland helped feed our weirdness. It's a free-thinking town that revels in nonconformity, and we felt the freedom to push boundaries and create something outside of the mainstream."

Vagabond Opera will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29, at Havurah Shir Hadash, 185 N. Mountain Ave., Medford.

"It is a weird beast," Stern says. Stern has a background in operatic singing. He studied and performed through his 20s, working with such companies as Delaware Valley Opera and Pennsylvania Opera. Feeling unfulfilled, he dropped opera to travel Europe.

"I was at odds with traditional opera because it wasn't a rounded enough experience," he says. "It didn't feed my Eastern European heritage or my larger thirst for Balkan and Arabic music. So I traveled and did a lot of singing in France, Spain, the U.K. and Italy."

When Stern returned to the United States, he ultimately landed in Portland.

"Portland is a laboratory of musical experiments in many ways," he says. "It's like Paris in the '30s."

Stern, a tenor, accordionist and pianist, and Jackson eventually hooked up with like-minded musicians fascinated with music from around the world, including Drew Nelson on acoustic and electric bass, Gypsy jazz guitar and melodica; drummer Mark Burdon; and cellists Skip vonKuske and Ashia Grzesik. Dr. Xander Gerrymander adds theatrical elements to the band's shows, and belly dancer Monique Rose, formerly of Ashland, will join the show at Havurah.

"There are three lead singers in the group, an element that comes from opera," Stern says. "Me, Robin and Ashia, and Ashia is a siren." Grzesik worked with Cirque du Soleil's production of "O" in Las Vegas, and she and vonKuske also are members of Portland Cello Project.

"All of us have trained classically," Stern says. "And all of us have chosen to not have classical careers. We want to take our trade skills and bend towards Vagabond Opera and other endeavors, like the cello project, solo careers and composing operas."

Stern has come full circle with opera. After abandoning it as a career so many years ago, he wrote his first original operatic work, titled "Queen of Knives," that was produced in 2010 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in Portland.

"I want to compact, distill and extend the tradition of opera," Stern says. "Cabaret and Eastern European music can do that."

For its live shows, Vagabond Opera whips up a gritty mix of cabaret, klezmer and steampunk with lyrics that the vocalists can present in 13 different languages.

"It's important that we're engaged with the audience," Stern says. "Sometimes, I'll leave the stage and lead a circle dance, and Ashia constantly interacts."

Vagabond Opera's newest CD, "Sing for Your Lives," was released in late 2011 on the group's eponymous label.

"The album is a step in extending cabaret and operatic traditions, with a nod to steampunk," Stern says. "I would hope that there is a dramatic arc, an imaginative journey, that occurs when people listen to it.

"We're creating something new without going back before a certain point in history," he says. "You could call it 'roots forward.' "

"Sing for Your Lives" is available at the band's website, www.vagabondopera.com.

Tickets for the show at Havurah cost $12 in advance and are available at Music Coop in Ashland or www.brownpapertickets.com. Tickets will cost $15 at the door, $10 for students and free for ages 11 and younger. Call 541-488-7716 for more information.

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