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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Overcast
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East Village Opera Company funks up the classics
A fine line between tradition and renewal.
A fine line between tradition and renewal.

Roll over, Beethoven! The East Village Opera Company brings operatic arias that rock with rhythm and blues to Overture's Capitol Theater next Thursday, Jan. 29.

Don't expect Tommy or Rennie Harris' hip hopera Rome and Jewels, and don't think kitsch. The EVOC deconstructs arias from the 18th and 19th centuries with a brainy palette of pop dance beats, and the results are seriously sophisticated.

"We tread the fine line between tradition and renewal," says arranger/keyboardist Peter Kiesewalter, who's played in rock bands, spent time as a country-western studio musician and been ABC-TV's resident composer. He's the only one of the band's three front-persons who has advanced classical training. Lead vocalists Tyley Ross and AnnMarie Milazzo come from careers in musical theater. A string section and a rock band back them up.

The stars were well aligned for the edgy lower Manhattan troupe's 2004 debut at Joe's Pub in the Public Theater. "We struck a nerve," Kiesewalter says. "There were record people there, looking for what we were doing."

A year later the EVOC signed with Decca/Universal; since then the group's recorded three CDs. The latest, Olde School, was released last year. It's an album of opera's greatest hits - songs my mother the opera singer used to sing. On Olde School they sound splendid - and they make me laugh.

"We have tremendous respect for this music," Kiesewalter says. "But it would smack of pretension if we did this with a completely straight face. I insist on a little bit of irreverence."

The EVOC's got cred in the classical world. Several arias on Olde School were commissioned by the New York City Opera for its Opera for All Gala in '06. But what would Wagner think? "I believe the composers themselves would use guitars and drums if they were here now. They were trailblazers, always the first to incorporate new instruments into their work."

Today their music begs to be seen in new ways, Kiesewalter says. Finding the right approach isn't always a snap - every aria represents a different challenge. "The harmonic structure usually dictates the treatment, but fitting the genres together can be tricky. The result has to be organic - it should feel like a song, not a piece of opera with a beat underneath."

On Olde School, "Help Me (Jove in Pity)," from Handel's Semele, sounds like '60s British pop. "As You Were Then," adapted from Bellini's Norma, has a country-western twang. Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" gets a hard-rock treatment - what else? "Brindisi Libera," the drinking song from Verdi's La Traviata, is mashed up with "Sempre Libera," an aria - Mom's favorite - from the same opera, and infused with funk rock.

There's some serious soul in "Walk," also from Semele. Kiesewalter gave the Baroque air a modern song structure with repeated verses, and emphasized tones that hit the right vibe. "I went for mid-'60s Motown," he says. "The song lent itself to that fat, lazy backbeat."

I can't sit still. Do people get up and dance?

That would be great, Kiesewalter says, though most theaters discourage it. "But in clubs the crowd's right up there moving. I love that response."

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