- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

“It doesn’t replace opera as it’s always been done. It’s just our take on it,” says East Village Opera Company tenor Tyley Ross. The operatic rockers (or is that rocking operatics?) make their area debut Tuesday at the Birchmere.

“This is all so new,” admits arranger and keyboardist Peter Kiesewalter. He met Mr. Ross when he was hired to score a movie using “modernized or re-treated” arias; Mr. Ross played an aspiring opera singer.

“I spent three months listening to opera nonstop,” says Mr. Ross. “By the time Peter and I started working together, I was a fan.”

After it wrapped, the pair formed an 11-piece rock band (including a string quartet) and last year released a debut CD of reworked aria standards, some in disco and rap.

A non-classical singer, Mr. Ross initially feared the reaction from opera purists: “If they booed Pavarotti when he cracked [a note], what are they gonna do when we’re playing?”

Mr. Kiesewalter says of the purists: “I just cringe when I see them [in the audience] … but they’re the ones who know all the words and are singing along.”

Mr. Kiesewalter feels opera requires some “irreverence,” and admittedly it seems unfair that over-the-top bombast is applauded in classic opera but gets derided in classic rock. However, Mr. Kiesewalter says, “I’m determined to make sure these composers are given their due.”

That’s why EVOC does the full arias note-for-note in Italian and French, as opposed to taking “a snippet and putting a disco beat behind it.”

EVOC’s new self-titled album (Decca/Universal) may appeal to those whose opera knowledge comes from seeing Elmer Fudd dressed as Wagner’s Siegfried singing “Kill the wabbit!” “Overture from Le Nozze di Figaro” incorporates the keyboard solo from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Che gelida manina” from “La Boheme” styles its guitar after U2, no strangers to over-the-top theatrics.

Vocally, Mr. Ross impressively channels Queen’s Freddie Mercury (and thankfully not Meat Loaf) on “La Donna e mobile” (from “Rigoletto”) and really gets to belt on “E lucevan le stelle” (“Tosca”). He even samples Marvin Gaye for “O mio babbino caro” (“Gianni Schicchi”).

Melodic strings and AnneMarie Milazzo’s swaying, breathy vocals anchor the “Habanera” from “Carmen,” while her “Flower Duet” (“Lakme”) with Mr. Ross has a creepy Celine Dion vibe that may or not be intentional.

Mr. Kiesewalter claims they didn’t intend the arias to sound like classic rock, but found that “as soon as you soup them up with guitars and drums, it sounded like Queen or Boston.”

“We found the dirty secret of these bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s: they were listening to Puccini all that time,” Mr. Kiesewalter says.

• • •

“I look at it as, we’re crafting little bubble-gum songs,” says Outrageous Cherry singer-guitarist-composer Matthew Smith from his Detroit home. Mr. Smith’s retro-pop quartet comes to Washington’s Black Cat on Monday night.

Cherry is a “psychedelic Motown garage band by virtue of geography,” he says.

“When I was a little kid I went to school across the street from the Motown studios,” Mr. Smith says. The band’s goal was “to try to make some music that doesn’t make us want to fall asleep” — which in practice turns out to be late ‘60s, Nuggets-era psychedelic pop.

Their latest CD, “Our Love Will Change The World” (Rainbow Quartz), kicks off with “Pretty Girls Go Insane,” a head-bobbing tune propelled by a cheesy “Casino Royale”-style trumpet riff. Most of the other songs here also have darkly funny, sometimes hilarious lyrics about damaged women, although Mr. Smith laughs that “the person writing about the damaged women is probably even more damaged.”

The rollicking title track, which seems like a takeoff on the Beatles’ “Getting Better,” pretends to be a political/romantic manifesto, but it’s really more of a satire, given lyrics like “Trying the illusion of being free/It’s effective to a certain degree.”

The real highlight here is the shamelessly retro rave-up “Unless,” in which Carey Gustafson’s propulsive, primitive drumming builds up to soaring pop choruses in which she and bassist Courtney Sheedy chant in unison. It’s clearly crafted: The drumming isn’t allowed to overshadow the vocals, or even the egg shakers.

You might even be able to hear the egg shakers and vocals at the Black Cat.

“I was just so sick of hearing drummers that were always bashing,” Mr. Smith explains. “We’ve never used cymbals or high-hats … that’s probably one of the keys to our whole sound.” This way “we don’t have to play [guitar] at a deafening volume” onstage.

Now there’s something you won’t hear many Detroit garage bands say.

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