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East Village Opera Company puts rock spin on classic arias by Mozart, Puccini

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TORONTO (CP) - Imagine Mozart in a leather outfit and black, steel-toed boots, pounding out 1970s rock anthems through an electric keyboard and laptop computer. To his right is Giacomo Puccini, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and runners, playing an electric guitar.

A strange vision for some, but for the Ottawa-born founders of the 11-piece East Village Opera Company, it's an inspiration.

"These (composers), you've got to remember that during their time (they) were always pushing the envelope," says arranger/keyboardist Peter Kiesewalter alongside lead singer Tyley Ross before a show in Toronto to promote their new self-titled album.

"If they were alive today ... they'd also be pushing the envelope. I'm sure they'd be using ProTools (music software). I think Mozart would've been a narcissistic little rock star, maybe someone like Prince, who did everything by himself. Either that or a jingle writer."

The New York-based East Village Opera Company (EVOC) also includes singer AnnMarie Milazzo, two guitar players, a drummer, a string quartet and a bass player.

Together they put a rock spin on traditional operatic arias, like Un Bel Di from Madama Butterfly and Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme, and perform them in a show that's both electric and melodramatic without a hint of satire.

Ross, a longtime stage performer, and Kiesewalter, an arranger/multi-instrumentalist, first toyed with the idea in 2001 after meeting on a Canadian film set. Kiesewalter was scoring music for the film, The Kiss of Debt, and Ross was the lead character - an aspiring opera singer.

Although he didn't have any formal training as an opera singer, Ross studied the craft under other singers and had played the lead in the 1995 Toronto production of Tommy, the Who's rock-opera stage musical.

"I speak French, so that wasn't a problem for me," says Ross of learning the 16th-and 17th-century European songs.

"Italian was something that I needed to learn. But I felt like I had some latitude because if I could do a better job in French or Italian than Pavarotti does in English, than I think we're doing OK."

With a 20-person musical cast in tow, Ross and Kiesewalter recorded 15 opera songs with their rock mixes in New York and released the first EVOC album, La Donna, independently.

"That first record was never intended to be performed," fesses Ross. "It was just a wanking musical project."

But their first live show in March 2004 in New York was a huge success and they quickly landed a steady gig at a Manhattan pub and later a deal with Universal Classics, which released their second album.

As EVOC's star rises, musical critics have responded with praise and the band is drawing comparisons to Queen and other rock-opera types.

However, Kiesewalter and Ross hesitate to put such a label on their sound.

"Anything that's the least bit rock that tells a story people will saddle with the name rock opera," says Ross. "Our music doesn't really tell a story."

Kiesewalter adds, "These are songs we're reinterpreting so ... I would shy away from using the term rock opera, because people think, 'What is this, Mamma Mia or is this a new Broadway musical?' and the fewer ties that we have to Broadway the better."

The two say they're also open to using other genres of music in their opera mixes and collaborating with other artists who can handle the passion required for the shows.

"I always thought Gwen Stefani could inhabit the character of Carmen - like, total sassy, flirtatious, seductress," says Kiesewalter.

EVOC shows draw a mixed crowd, says Ross, including opera lovers, hipsters and children alike.

And although the founders embrace the idea of having kids at their shows, Ross says they "never had any goal to make this a teaching exercise."

Kiesewalter, a relatively new father of a baby girl, agrees.

"Why does history have to be hipped up for kids?" he asks.

"I think kids should be taught in school how it was written, given historical context in that day and age, and it doesn't have to be sexed up or hipped up. And that way they also get a sense of the rules, if they ever want to break them."


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© The Canadian Press, 2005

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