Crossover. Just that one word as it relates to music evokes strong reactions ranging from revulsion and blasphemy on one end to $ signs dancing in the heads of music company executives on the other. The truth is, like most things, if it’s done well and with integrity there’s no real reason, aside from ignorant snobbery, to object to melding disparate musical styles. But when it’s bad, it is often an embarrassing, horrible mess. Unfortunately, the latter is most often the case since crossover projects are usually done for the wrong reasons. Some of the greatest successes have been ones which at the outset seemed disastrously ludicrous, e.g. Ray Charles’ classic 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music,” in which he brilliantly combined R&B and Gospel, with Country & Western songs.
The East Village Opera Company (EVOC), a New York-based group founded in 2004, attempts to join two worlds which almost never meet: opera and hardcore power rock music. Considering the relative paucity of people who appreciate both styles and asking one to even give the other a try would be like asking Barbra Streisand to kiss George W. Bush. When I told several opera-loving friends about this group they responded as if they had just eaten e-coli infested spinach. The EVOC is basically your standard rock group lineup, augmented by two-four real string players, and two singers performing well-known arias from operas. Everything is based on these arias so there is something for both camps; although I have no doubt that it is the exclusive opera fans who may have wandered in unsuspectingly who were the most horrified.
The EVOC has one CD that was recently released and their current tour consists mostly of performing that entire recording. Their appearance at Stewart Theatre on the NC State campus drew half a house, and it was interesting to watch various reactions, especially when they first started. It was like the old commercial for Maxell cassettes where a guy is sitting in a chair with his hair blowing back and face contorted like he was experiencing 20 g’s of force. This band was one loud mother. They began with the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, somehow combined with The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Is there a doctor in the house to treat bleeding ears?
Next, the real star of the group and possibly the only reason I’d see them again, singer Tyley Ross, came out to sing "Che Gelida Manina" from Puccini’s La Boheme. Ross is an incredible combination of a great, powerful tenor/countertenor with the rock outrageousness and energy of Jagger, Tyler, or Robert Plant. Without someone with his expertise and obvious love of both musical worlds, this would just be a very good garage band.
Although the program stated the usual disclaimer that "program and players subject to change" it was quite disappointing that only two strings of the promised string quartet were present. The lone violin and cello were very badly amplified resulting in a very unflattering screechy and strident sound. The concept of string quartet vs. rock band works extremely well on their CD because of well-written string parts and a fairly balanced approach between the two “sides.” This was not so in their live performance. The only thing which kept me interested was Tyley Ross's remarkable voice. The female singer, Victoria Cave,* sounded a bit like she was coming off of a cold, and she did not have nearly the stage presence, pipes, or energy of Ross. They did have some nice duos, most noticeably the lovely "Flower Duet" from Lakme by Leo Delibes (this has become a favorite for car and perfume commercials). Another highlight of the evening was Ross's masterful rendition of what may be the most beautiful aria in all of opera – Nessun Dorma from Puccini's final opera Turandot.
This was like a concert of greatest hits of opera for metalheads. All the biggies including selections from Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto, Carmen, etc., were represented. Despite the EVOC's representation that this is a group that synthesizes opera and rock music, at least in this concert, they merely used great melodies mostly as a vehicle for repetitive, cliché-ridden guitar solos. Granted, it's nice to have that extra power and turn the amp up to 11 like no orchestra can come close to, but I wanted more. Perhaps I had misplaced expectations, but for the EVOC their excellent CD represents their avowed concept in a much more balanced and polished form.
*Edited/corrected 11/28/06. The name AnnMarie Milazzo appeared in an earlier edition of this review and in the program for the concert, but she was replaced in the performance by Ms. Cave.