Behind the music with Vagabond Opera

In the moment, each song is a universe that fits its own,” Ashia Grzesik, singer and cello player for Vagabond Opera, describing the band’s unique brand of music. A bohemian cabaret band that has roots in jazz, opera, classical, Ukrainian, Balkan, and Middle Eastern Music, it is nothing short of a mystery.

The band utilizes a strange combination of theatrics, comedy, dance, incredible musical talent and, of course, what band is complete without a little burlesque dancing? On Friday, November 6th, they shocked and awed the audience at the Capilano Performing Arts Theatre with their antics, which included speaking gibberish to each other between songs, and one of the band members pulling a set of false teeth out of her bra. Music and drama compete in Vagabond Opera, but the real wonder behind the scenes of the band is the secret ingredient of both these elements – improvisation.

According to Jason Flores, the band's stand up bass player, the forming of the group was as improvised as the set list every night. They're lead by operatic tenor, pianist, and composer Eric Stern, but according to Flores, the other members have a lot of input into the songs and the music styles that they play. “A couple of us have classical training,” Flores said, “but ultimately this band is about melding and mixing. We take whatever we have and we bring it to the floor – and if it’s good enough, we just might play it. This group challenges all of us to play outside of our style.”

For Grzesik, that is one of the key elements that attracted her to Vagabond Opera when she joined, six months ago. Originally from Poland, she had extensive training in classical cello and singing, but she always had the inkling to do something beyond that. After performing as a cellist with Cirque du Soleil last year, she was convinced that classical was not enough for her. “I loved the performance element of Cirque du Soleil,” Grzesik said, “So I knew that I wanted to do something that included that.” And she certainly found her performance niche in Vagabond Opera; she manages to play the cello, do vocals, and fit in a few burlesque dances, all during the course of one show.

It’s not just Grzesik who puts on a spectacle. All of the band members are dressed to the nines in Bohemian get-ups, from striped pants and suspenders to top hats and face make-up. During songs, they dance, throw cards into the audience, and generally put on an entertaining show, from their huge operatic range to their somewhat risqué body movements. “Somehow, this crazy group works really well,” Grzesik said.

Although some of the band members have studied music professionally, a few of them are self-taught, true Bohemian children of the revolution. Even the self-taught members have had to learn the art of improv and readiness. “We never know what song is coming next at a show,” Flores said. “Eric just points to us and then we play. It could be a song we haven’t practiced for months, but we’ll still play it.” The band members work off of each other incredibly well, getting energy out of the music and dancing around each other. “Like-minded freaks can smell their own,” says Flores.

//Krissi Bucholtz

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