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Opera arias served over rock


The first track on the East Village Opera Company's self-titled CD opens with a string quartet playing the familiar melody of the overture to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.

Then the driving drum set kicks in, followed by electric guitar and, in the mix, the organ part from the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

The three-year-old EVOC is earning a reputation for turning highbrow into hybrid with its rock-inspired rewrites of opera's greatest hits.

The group plans to introduce local audiences to arias that rock with two vocalists, a five-piece rock band and a string quartet at the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 17.

The festival, which runs through June 24, begins tomorrow with a free three-day "LakeFest" including visual art, music and family entertainment at the Columbia Town Center lakefront.

The roster for this year's festival includes rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears, bluegrass band the Seldom Scene, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, juggling by the Flying Karamazov Brothers and a finale featuring Diavolo's combination of artistic movement and architectural structures.

EVOC fits perfectly into the eclectic lineup, said festival director Nichole J. Hickey.

"We take pride in presenting emerging artists," she said. "We look to present a genre where you are seeing changes."

She said EVOC offers "such a marvelous, lush melding of the two musical forms. The vocalists are just so phenomenal ... I think this is really exciting."

The group's Canadian founders, Tyley Ross and Peter Kiesewalter - both now live in New York - didn't set out to reinvent opera or refine rock. In 2001, they were asked to work on a movie soundtrack that called for a fresh take on opera music.

Ross, who is one of the group's vocalists, has been a musical actor since he was a teenager. His resume includes a starring role in Broadway's Miss Saigon. Kiesewalter, an instrumentalist and arranger, was a television and film composer who trained in classical clarinet and has played keyboards and reeds with a variety of bands.

The two started working on opera arrangements and got carried away, eventually creating an independent 15-song CD featuring 20 musicians.

They played their first gig at Joe's Pub at New York's celebrated Public Theater in March 2004, and, Ross said, "There were just too many movers and shakers in the audience I suppose, and the audience reacted in such a way, we just had to keep going."

They signed a record deal with Decca/Universal Classics within the year.

"We're still actually reeling from it," Ross said. "Peter and I both abandoned everything we were working on before. We are still shaking our heads, wondering how it happened so quickly."

He added: "People are really enthusiastic about this stuff. I think it speaks to how deeply this music is steeped in our cultural DNA."

Kiesewalter said the group "made a very conscious decision to play extremely familiar opera music."

He said people recognize many of the tunes from commercials, movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, so "when they hear what we are doing with them, it gives us a context and a framework. ... At the same time they are really well-known because they are great, they are awesome tunes."

New arrangements of songs from Turandot, La Boheme, Rigoletto and Carmen are on the band's set list, all sung in their original languages.

Kiesewalter said embracing the overblown emotions and dramatic themes in most opera pieces is important to do the music justice. But, he said, "that is hard to do in this day of irony and subtlety. We found some of the mannerisms of rock music lend themselves very well to opera."

He said he hopes his arrangements reflect "a sense of playfulness and a little bit of irreverence that is definitely part of my personality. ... I have to have a little bit of my tongue in my cheek to perhaps suck a little bit of the potential pretension out of this."

The approach has appealed to opera novices and to some longtime opera fans.

"The people who see opera nowadays, they didn't grow up in a vacuum," Ross said. "The oldest people probably have Jimi Hendrix [recordings], the youngest have hip-hop to AC/DC."

Kiesewalter added: "This music has been treated with too much reverence to the point that audiences or opera fanatics are very, very protective. ... [Traditional versions] have to be messed with once in a while to show how brilliant the original piece of art is in the first place."


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