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Vagabond Opera Enchants Joe's Pub

by Melanie Wong

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What do you get when Moulin Rouge meets a traveling carnival and Shakira? Vagabond Opera, of course—the Bohemian troupe combining traditional opera with cabaret, gypsy-style folk music, and Arabic belly dancing—whose performance at Joe’s Pub Sunday night was just as eclectic and dazzling as it sounds.

Although their name suggests otherwise, this particular group of vagabonds actually claims a home in Portland, Oregon. Even so, these vaudeville carnies display a mesmerizing character that instantly transports its audiences to a world more akin to a 19th-century Parisian burlesque. Case in point: Among guest performer Ashley Lopez’s many roles Sunday night were a corseted courtesan and a booty-shaking/belly-dancing/contortionist extraordinaire—all while singing as a beautiful mezzo-soprano.

As classically trained opera singers, the ensemble has excellent diction, pitch, projection, and range, while musically they are a tight unit whose technical output matches their exceptional knack for flair. Some of the most memorable highlights of the evening included a performance of the “Habanera" from Carmen that extended “the operatic tradition to belly dancing and back,” a wild Eastern European hoedown, and a whirlwind cello/saxophone duel in quasi-klezmer style.

Though their character is that of the late 1800s, Vagabond Opera did make good use of some 21st-century developments: the bass player used a skinny, black electric upright, and both the cello and accordion were plugged into electronic devices that allowed them to record and loop parts of their performance at will—an increasingly popular trend as of late.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and at the announcement of the final song, “Goodnight Moon,” the audience—reluctant to leave the coziness of the lounge—gave a unanimous sigh of disappointment. If you missed Vagabond Opera this time around, be sure to look out for them in the future or catch them during the remainder of their summer tour along the East Coast.