Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Lorca Aria

Photo by James Phillip Thomas
Awhile back I was part of a concert for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral of Leonard Cohen songs. Inspired by Cohen's own inspiration of Lorca I wrote this aria, to Lorca's poem La Casada Infiel. I decided not to use translated lyrics, but the original instead.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Moon and All That.

A Corner of my Studio
  I went to bed early, upstairs in my studio, where I sometimes sleep if I come home late (instead of in the bedroom with my wife). My studio is an open space that takes up the entire second story, with two comfortable armchairs, two ouds, a piano keyboard, paintings on the walls that my friends have made and an oriental rug. Push aside the dark red curtains at one end and there's a glass door that opens to a balcony. On warm days when I sit on the balcony above the foliage, or warm nights under the stars playing my oud, I'm reminded of the old courtyards of Damascus, of which I've only read.
  Sometimes, up there, alone, I think: this would be enough. Living alone, in my studio, with maybe a bathroom and kitchen added. I know what all the articles say about single people not being as happy nor living as long, but maybe those people just don't have the right furnishings.
  It reminds me of what Frank Girard said once. Frank Girard was a friend and colleague of my father's. They were writing a book on some obscure Socialist Labor Party ephemera, and every Summer Frank would visit from Wisconsin. He wore plaid shirts and had large hands and always took an interest in what I was up to.
  The first Summer he came he stayed in my step-sister's old room that was across the hallway from mine. She had moved out and so I had made it into a sitting room and I must have been proud of the whole set-up because as soon as he finished mounting the stairs and could see the hallway and the two rooms he said, “Ah. Every man must have his castle!”
  I understood that then, and I understand it now.
  Making the whole upper floor into an apartment had always been part of my designs, and as soon as my sister moved out I jumped on to the space with all the first-world imperial privilege a boy my age could muster and annexed her room. I was fourteen.
  My bedroom I kept as my bedroom, but I arranged her room to be a sitting room, furnished half in the style of 221 Baker Street B, complete with a magnifying glass and Victorian ort, and half in a more noirish style.
  To fulfill the latter I gathered a couple of empty liquor bottles from around the neighborhood and arranged them with an empty bottle of my dad's Canadian Whiskey. I half filled them all with water so that my “bar” consisted of the blended whiskey along with two bottle of “Old Grand Dad.” The picture of the Victorian old man with the spectacles I had seen on billboards for the liquor also went nicely with the Sherlock Holmes aesthetic.
  In the late afternoon, or early evening I'd pour myself a glass of the “whiskey”, put my record of “Rhapsody in Blue” on using the large wooden console stereo and then sink into the green faux-leather armchair. I felt like a grown-up. but old-fashioned too, like I was a Bogart detective. The fantasy would continue and although it wasn't specific, I was just a detective in the big city relaxing with his drink at the end of the day, it pushed the boundaries of my natural existence—an assimilated Jewish boy growing up in a Philadelphia suburb and all the angst that comes with the adolescent territory—almost enough, until my mother yelled up to me that it was dinner time, or my father started mowing the lawn. Then I was just a kid again, not a guy in his thirties in the 1940's.
  At forty-four, I'm still sitting around in a furnished room, longing for something. The fantasy is a little different now. In the fantasy I'm a writer and a renaissance man, and I draw Arabic calligraphy and play the oud, and as it happens I do all of these things anyway. But in the fantasy I don't have a wife and child, I control everything, and I have lovers who come and go. And some sort of passive income.
  When I was a teenager the problem seemed to be that I wasn't a grown-up. And I couldn't be a grown up at that age any more than I could be a real private eye or living in the 1940's. And I certainly didn't think I'd miss my family one day, my parents, or my sister. Those were the people I couldn't wait to get away from.

  Now, I have all that and a bag of chips. That's something my wife would say. We've been together long enough that our speech patterns are well-integrated. And I suppose that if I really wanted to I could leave, set myself up in a small studio and live that coveted bachelor life where I fix myself drinks and listen to Gershwin, alone on a chair. Here's what actually happens when I'm by myself, for example when Jill takes my son to Memphis so they can visit relatives: I end up drinking a lot of beer and watching Jackie Chan movies. It's great for the first two days and then I feel lost. I suppose if it had to be that way I would push through it and even achieve some sort of happiness, but I also know something I didn't know when I was fourteen. And that's maybe that I would have enjoyed my sitting room for another hour if no one called me to dinner, maybe even two hours, but after that I would have gotten bored and wanted to hang out with my parents. The only reason my fantasy was appealing was because people were around...for escapism to be effective you need something to escape from.
  What keeps me from actually escaping is that without my wife and child my life would be drastically empty, pale and drained. Call me co-dependent, if you want, but we happen to have a great relationship and love all around. I'm very lucky. It's a pain living with anybody, but if it's the right people, it's a gaping pain living without them.

  I open the door and walk on to the balcony. The moon is full enough to read Arabic poetry by. The tree in the neighbor's yard is still bare from Winter and the branches open their hands to a swath of glowing sky.
  I walk back inside, play a song on the oud and then shut the curtains to utter darkness, crawl into the single bed, and go to sleep.

Me on my Balcony

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Gap Year: Eric Stern interviews himself (thanks for the idea g.g.).

Photo Credit: Michael Bodine
Photo Credit: Scott Bump
ES: I recently read a Vagabond Opera fan posting that described the band in the past tense...
Eric Stern: Yes, I read that as well. It started out: "A fine Portland band from the Pre-Portlandia era..." and then went on to say some very nice things.. But that framing of us, in bygone era, well I protested, at first.
ES: Why?
Eric Stern: Well first because I'd hate to use Portlandia as a temporal limiter, or as a means to define anything about this city, but mostly because...well the last gig we played was in November. I mean, don't be so quick to put nails in the coffin.
ES: And yet you've shaved your moustache, and if you make a public appearance these days you're usually seen playing an obscure Arabic instrument.
Eric Stern: The oud isn't obscure in the Arab or Turkish world. And yes, I'm obsessed with it, the same way I was once obsessed with the accordion. But that's besides the point. I'm not ready to say that Vagabond Opera is over, but I am taking a gap year.
ES: A gap year?
Eric Stern: Yes, you know when high school students take a year before college and travel to Europe or find a job at home and just experience life away from the pressure of school. The band has been going for around twelve years. I needed a break. A break from the band, from the persona, from the music industry. That's all.
ES: Why?
Eric Stern: Do I need a reason?
ES: No. But from what I know the band was touring, producing interesting shows, with interesting music. So why...sort of the "if it ain't broke principle," I guess...
Eric Stern: All of that is true, and even behind the scenes there wasn't the drama you often hear about in bands, and I've still remained friends with almost everyone that's been in it. That's almost part of the issue...I wish I could say that some cataclysmic dramatic event ended the ensemble with a resounding finality.
ES: So it is over?
Eric Stern: Never say "never." The music industry is an odd beast. I went into it, I mean the whole band thing, and maybe even when I was in opera, with this David Copperfield idea, that if I did my absolute best and greatest work, and that if I followed my heart that we would achieve unparalleled success. Rise to the top.
ES: You are of the "follow your bliss" generation and also from a country that is constantly in the throes of what Salman Rushdie calls the "cult of celebrity."
Eric Stern: I didn't need us to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I just wanted us to achieve a level of recognition maybe on par with our friends of The Decemberists or the Portland band, Pink Martini. In the end, I always knew that the true success...well this sounds trite but I mean it...that the true success was already achieved because in every show we gave our hearts minds body and blood practically and brought all of our art to serve and were rewarded instantly with the energetic return from the spectators. That much I knew, and that may be enough. But you don't hear too much about the economics of these things. You know I'm reminded of an R. Crumb quote where he said something to the effect of being an artist in the United States usually equated with being a loser. I wouldn't go so far, but I also did get tired of the ratio of work I and the band would put into projects versus our financial return. And there was another more important ratio. I found myself spending more and more time on promotion (even when we'd hire a promoter!), and less and less time to work on craft. And craft is vital to me. But rather than whine about it I've decided to do other things.
ES: Things that make more money?
Eric Stern: No things, that don't cost as much. Of course, right away after I made the decision to take a break I started an opera company and composed an opera and mounted a production and then began to think of all the things that would have to happen: fund-raisers, concerts, recruiting volunteers the whole catastrophe as Zorba would say and the oddest thing happened. I almost feel embarrassed to say it...
ES: Go ahead...
Eric Stern: I felt my body putting on the brakes. The only way I could put it is that I didn't want to be outward. So no big Fall production, no fund-raisers, none of that. Instead I started a little creative collective out of my home that met on Wednesdays, just me and a circle of my friends practicing songs, writing, but even that was too much. All I really wanted to do was play the oud, watch Christopher Hitchens on youtube or learn about history and philosophy, and write. Of course I didn't immediately embrace that; on the contrary I fought it for a month or so, but gradually, and with the wisdom of age, I knew to listen to what my body was telling me. It's been nourishing.
ES: What has?
Eric Stern: Going internal, I guess. Learning. being in one place. I'm barely performing (just once a week in a band that plays Arabic music for belly dancers. I play the oud, and accordion once a week at a French Restaurant), and I'm mostly writing, on a schedule, either alone or with my business partner from Hungry Opera Machine, Annie Rosen. Fiction, essays, short stories, a radio play and even a mystery novel. I don't wear striped pants or a moustache. I'm finished with that, for now. And besides I get to do this:
Elena Villa with Eric Stern. Photo: Phoebus-Foto

I'll also be blogging more...

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Original Radio Play airs on Portland Jewish Hour

Recently Liz Schwartz of the Portland Jewish Hour on KBOO contacted me about doing something original for the show. As it turned out my creative partner Annie Rosen and I had been doing a lot of writing so I thought I'd try a radio play, tailor-made for the both of us. My father was a big fan of Bob and Ray and I got to hear a lot of them growing up, and this radio play was written with their style in mind.

The Radio play, Always Leave Them Wanting More, is the exciting adventures of the Tin Pan Alley Duo Gloria Steinway and Herbert Plotzbottom. In this episode they're visited by the mysterious Mrs. Goldollar with a proposition that threatens to tear apart the creative team forever! Listen to the whole thing here:

Hungry Opera Machine and the Portland Jewish Hour presents Always Leave Them Wanting More! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Good Day Moon

  Some songs and even some opera plots come to you in the middle of the night, and you'd better write them down. That's how it was with one of my songs; I once awoke around midnight to the full moon and "Goodnight Moon" wrote itself (if you think that I have full access to that kind of inspiration, think again, as that was the only time that ever happened for a song).
Photo Ben Mund
  That's also how it was with my latest work, Flour, Salt, and Moonbeams: laying in bed, I came up with an admittedly Chaplin-esque short film where a tramp, caught outside in the cold rain, manages to get a job inside the warm kitchen of a diner, making the only thing she knows how to make...tortillas.
A heavy enters and wants his corned beef hash, no tortillas, and the conflict is set, stakes are raised, and so the arc of the plot goes, and you'll have to see it to find out what happens.   This biggest difference I'm observing between composing a song and composing an opera is not so much one of size and complexity (you could even argue that an opera is a series of songs linked by transitions; that's certainly how it was in Mozart's day with the transitions being almost stock musical recitatives), but rather that to mount an opera you need partners in crime. And a dash of terror.
  The process of creating the work began long before the night I came up with the idea. The original spark was probably Chaplin himself whose films I saw as a child at The Franklin Institute (they had a theater there complete with marble columns on the side) but lately it's been the work I've done with my partner in Hungry Opera Machine, Annie Rosen.
  For months Annie and I have met at the Lotus Seed studio and there we would explore scenes, characters, movement and the stock characters associated with the Italian Commedia Dell'Arte tradition, of which we've both had some training (mine was informal, Annie has actually attended clown college).
  It sounds very fancy doesn't it, but really it was us, and other players we invited, big mats, sweat pants, walking around the room doing acting exercises (you know making human sculptures, mimed objects, absurd bus-stop scenarios or just walking around in circles acting out various life stages of made-up individuals), lots of improv, lots of movement that laid the groundwork. And as our mutual trust grows we continue to explore the comfortable and the uncomfortable. While this is all fascinating, you'll want to see the refined version.
  In another blog I'll talk about the composing itself and how I wanted to explore and extend some of Django Reindhardt styling in operatic form. That part was done mostly alone, like a painter at canvas, but the rest?
  Back in November we had a concert-version preview at the Mississippi Pizza Pub (give it a listen). That already involved three instrumentalists, four principal singer, and a director. To bring the creation fully to a stage we needed another instrumentalist, stage manager, stage hands, a sound and lighting tech, a theater, promoters, openers (not always necessary but why not?) and most importantly an audience.
  So no big surprise: theater is a communal and community event. And to someone who spends hours alone at the drawing board painting songs (as I said inspiration very rarely just hits you in the middle of the night) that's a welcome and a terrifying thought.
  Welcome because, you know, I'm finally not working alone surrounded by four walls but rather with real flesh and blood people singing their brains out.      
   Terrifying because once I hand the libretto, the music off to the director, other instrumentalists I am not in control. No matter how much I exert my vision in rehearsals, no matter how good the singing and acting is, how extraordinary the director is I must ultimately surrender to the process.
  The lesson I've learned over time, as absurd as it sounds, is to embrace that terror, that loss of control. At some point, surrender. A larger work forged by many hands has its own rewards: we create the world together and we create the conditions for the audience to experience that world with us, and hopefully the spectators carry a small piece of that world with them out of the theater.
  Sure, I had the vision, and sure Annie Rosen is directing, it's definitely not a consensus-based collective, complete with tofu and Bulgar wheat, but I can't sing the soprano part and I can't play the violin. Or build a set (funny enough Annie probably can do all three of those things). And I wouldn't want to. I'd rather attempt the perfect mix of people and have the chemistry occur in just the right explosive way. We're laying the groundwork and the final component is the audience. My hope is that after seeing this opera, you too will wake in the night and record your inspiration.

 Hungry Opera Machine presents:

a gypsy jazz comic opera by Eric Stern


Doors at 7, show at 8

at The Alberta Rose Theatre
3000 N Alberta St
Portland, OR


A full staged production of this new Gypsy Jazz Opera!

What happens when a diner cook who can only make tortillas (the most delicious in the world) encounters a mafioso customer who only wants his corned beef-hash? And what about the waitress with a mouth like a sailor and her money-grubbing boss?

Come and see as Hungry Opera Machine (the newest effort from Eric Stern of Vagabond Opera) presents FLOUR, SALT AND MOONBEAMS at the historic Alberta Rose Theatre. Classical opera singers Ian Ramirez and Dru Rutledge are joined by musical theater types Annie Rosen and Noah Mickens; with instrumentalists Paul Evans (saxophone and percussion), Mirabai Peart (violin), Drew Nelson (bass), and Eric Stern (piano). The style of the opera is a hybrid of modern classical, gypsy jazz, and slapstick comedy; complete with gorgeous arias, smokin' solos, and screwball antics in the vein of Chaplin and Keaton.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hungry Opera Machine. Everyone Sing!

 Beginnings are exciting. You visit a far-away city and have a map, some idea of the territory and perhaps an itinerary, but who knows how things will unfold? The adventure is unknown. Twelve years ago I had a little ragged map in my head with the words, "Vagabond Opera" written on it. I had a big vision and very little specifics, but with the help of fellow-musicians, an eclectic Portland community and loyal fans that project went far beyond the map I held. It took me and my bandmates across the country and across oceans. It led me to extraordinary connections with people and we created strong work that I am proud of.

  Now I hold another map in my hand that says "Hungry Opera Machine." I know a little of the map and have some awareness of where I want to go and where I don't, but it's another beginning. Online I say that we are a company that focuses on contemporary operas and musicals in English. That's part of the map. I've found a wonderful artistic partner in the endeavor, Annie Rosen. That's another part. And we've even had our first little show, a splendid affair, in my backyard, tea lights hung, cushions on the ground, new work from an upcoming opera, and a little gem of a piece that I wrote with Annie, and Catherine Bridge. Still another part.

  I want to begin share here, the vision, the big picture, and I'm blogging about it because I hope that you will want to be a part of this vision.
  Let's begin with singing. It's our birthright and it's in our DNA although few of us sing, in this country, beyond childhood. In other places in the world and at other times in history here, singing has been woven into the daily fabric of living; people sang together as they worked and to relax or inspire one another. Singing has helped foment revolution and social change.
  I recall a story that my friend and former Vagabond bandmate Lesley Kernochan related to me.
She had just arrived in South Africa and was invited to dinner. After dinner her host and some neighbors gathered and they began to sing songs. One song followed another, and they invented harmonies and sometimes improvised verses even and it went on into the night, for at least two or three hours.
  Lesley thought that maybe they had done this for her benefit as a first-time visitor and so she asked them, "How often do you do this after dinner, how often do you sing together after dinner for hours like this?" The host looked puzzled for a moment and then thought about it and said, "Oh not much. Maybe just two or three times a week."
  If I were to make a brief pitch for singing together I'd say it releases endorphins, and better than that, reminds us that we are semi-permeable membranes. When you sing with others the borders dissolve and for a few moments you become part of a collective being. Be wary of this feeling if you're in a cult, but otherwise it's beneficial once in awhile, especially in our increasingly isolated society, to lose our ego in endorphin-releasing activity.
  Of course Hungry Opera Machine will have performances by trained singers because it's nice to focus on people who make this kind of thing their life's work.
  But we're going to have sing-alongs too because singing is for EVERYBODY. We started our first show with one, and we might just start every show with one! I know that's a scary idea for many people. We'll hold your hand every step of the way, and you can start by hiding in the pre-show darkness and not singing a word as many times as you want, but I hope that you'll keep coming back again and again until you finally open your mouth and your beautiful voice that you were born with tumbles out.
  And if an opening sing along once in awhile isn't enough we'll have whole evenings around the piano, classes, and more.

That's the first part of the vision. The first line drawn on the map. I'll write more as it comes and so will others and of course the map will make itself too.

To find out more about HOM (for example we have a new opera coming this Fall) go to or drop us an email.

Lesley Kernochan is doing great work too. Check her stuff out

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Story Telling in Portland.

  In February I had the rare opportunity to work with Portland Story Theater in their Valentine's day show, Kiss and Tell. Our love for each other was sealed and this Friday, after months of work, Portland Story Theater will begin unveiling the work of several artists, including myself, in their Singlehandedly festival. It's a rare opportunity, in this over-produced landscape we live in, to sit in a small theater and listen to a story float  between you and the person on stage. No facebook ads, no explosions, no band histrionics, but rather the spectator is face to face with an art form at its purest.

  I'll be talking about the man who trained my voice, James Wiest; the man who taught me about opera, drinking, and shaped my artistic life. He wore a plaid shirt and drank whiskey and built my voice from the ground up. My story is on May 4th but I invite you to come to each and every one of these rare nights, as I've worked with the artists in rehearsal now and can trumpet the merits of their extraordinary stories right here. Storytelling is primal, ancient, and completely engaging, and you'll only get to hear these stories once. Don't miss out.

Artists 2012 Singlehandedly

Friday April 27, 2012
Lawrence Howard with "Two Brothers"
New Voice: Lynn Fitch with "Marking Time"

Saturday April 28, 2012
Cory Huff with "Mormon Redneck Thespian"
Ryan Wolf Stroud with "That's Why We Pray"

Friday May 4, 2012
Eric Stern with "Plaid Shirt Maestro"
Penny Walter with "Roots and Wings"

Saturday May 5, 2012
Lynne Duddy with "Wabi-Sabi White Girl"
Michele Carlo with "Fish Out of Agua" 

Fridays & Saturdays
April 27, 28 and May 4, 5
Friday, May 11 Urban Invitational
Each Night $15 Advance | $20 Door Doors 7:00 | Shows 8:00

Only $60 | 5 nights for the price of 4