Anarchy at the opera
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
Down an alley and behind the door of that dark entryway, the four members of the self-described "coliseum rock" band Dork ran through one of its compositions with a couple of brand-new vocalists.
"You've got to understand we're not used to having everything so amped up," said Julius Ahn to Dork guitarist Jake Foster, speaking for himself and co-vocalist Andy Maddock. "We're used to acoustics."
Foster laughed and fiddled with his amp.
Hawaii Opera Theatre soloists Ahn and Maddock had just laid tandem vocals over Dork's hard-core "Force Feed," their usually soaring voices beaten to a quiet pulp by the band's amps-to-11 sonic attack. Ahn handed out earplugs to anyone who wanted 'em.
Another Dork composition was rehearsed.
"Evil Reed" described by Dork drummer Jack Tawill as "a tribute to Lou Reed" showcased the opera vocalists' impressive ranges much better, their Lou Reed-gone-Carmen vocals kept front and center by a lulling Velvet Undergroundish rhythm guitar line.
Ahn bounced his head and moved to the beat. Midway, fellow HOT vocalist Sherry Chock Wong arrived, adding a soaring vocal. Maddock was comfortable somewhere between the two. Tawill removed his shirt. Foster shredded guitar.
By the end of the session, Suspicious Minds guitarist Ryan Bradley showed up with fresh guitar-based arrangements for Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," Bizet's "Toreador Song" and Schubert's "Ave Maria."
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls ... welcome to Punk Rock Opera.
Though neither would cop to it, the idea for Punk Rock Opera was first raised in the fertile minds of Dork's Foster and HOT artistic administrator John Parkinson sometime late last year.
Foster had co-founded with 86 List guitarist/vocalist Josh Hancock the Honolulu nonprofit Unity Crayons, committed to promoting the work of underground musicians and artists via "positive" (drug- and violence-free) live shows open to all ages. Parkinson, a friend of Foster's, was keen on taking the joys of opera to Unity Crayons' mostly teenage and young-adult audience, and assisting the new nonprofit with its goal of raising its profile through more community-based service work.
Six months went by with the two paying enough lip service to the idea to rival "My Dinner With Andre." Finally, last Christmas, Foster and Parkinson began putting together a timeline for staging Punk Rock Opera at the conclusion of HOT's annual performance season.
"I got the opera singers and Jake got the bands," Parkinson said.
The final Punk Rock Opera lineup matches up HOT vocal trio Ahn, Maddock and Chock Wong with bands Dork, Suspicious Minds and The 86 List.
Each band will play a 40-minute live set, concluding with two originals vocalized operatically by the HOT trio. Opera interludes will be performed by the trio between sets. The evening ends with a 20-minute finale featuring Suspicious Minds backing the vocal trio on opera classics stripped to their heretofore unknown rock roots.
"I knew as soon as they told me about the idea that it would be easy to turn opera melodies into punk rock songs to strip them down," said Suspicious Minds' Bradley. "You can do that with almost everything."
Charged with arranging and organizing the finale, University of Hawai'i music major Bradley was regularly name-checked as Punk Rock Opera's resident music guru. Consider the fate of "Ave Maria" under the guitarist's hand.
"I took the piano score and figured out how to play it on guitar just to get that flavor," said Bradley. "Then I just 86'ed that and used the chords from the piano score to create punk rock songs.
"That's pretty much what happened with the other (opera) pieces, too. We just broke it down harmonically into whatever chords were happening, and from there put a punk beat behind it."
As arranged by Bradley, "Ave Maria" starts with a slow, repetitive matchup of twangy electric guitar and bass not unlike the intro of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" percolating into uptempo rockabilly. Chock Wong speeds her reading to match, keeping her voice rafter-reaching and amazingly crystalline.
Ahn's voice soars on "Toreador" from "Carmen" and solo on "Nessun Dorma" from "Turandot," backed by a danceable Suspicious Minds' boogie-blues rhythm from Bradley and bassist Mike Harrell.
You can dance to it
Post-"Force Feed" and "Evil Reed," Chock Wong sat on some crates outside Punk Rock Opera's HOT rehearsal space gushing about her new musically diverse bandmates.
"I love 'em. Every band is awesome," she said, as Ahn's "Toreador" solo floated out the building's sealed doors. "Dork's got great lyrics. Suspicious Minds' 'Love Ghetto' has super-cool chord progressions and tempo changes. And The 86 List has very danceable ska."
After volunteering their services to Punk Rock Opera, the HOT trio the company has about 20 vocalists were given a CD of band recordings earlier this month to practice with. The punk bands were allowed to select songs from their repertoire for the vocalists, while the vocalists chose opera works from a list of classics they were familiar with.
Everyone met for the first time for an organizational meeting about a week later. Rehearsals, begun last week, have gone exceptionally well.
"It's been surprisingly easy," said Chock Wong. "The guys have this vibe of 'anything goes' and 'go for it.' They've told us, 'Whatever you're feeling, that's what we want.' And they've given us a lot of freedom to do what we want with their songs."
Suspicious Minds' "Love Ghetto" is a standout example of that freedom, as the vocalists' remarkable operatic ranges effortlessly ride the song's swift choruses, mellow verses and menacing guitar interludes.
Later, after equally succinct run-throughs of the 86 List's "Ruins" and "Punx," band member Hancock praised the vocalists for inspired readings of their original material.
"I thought that the opera singers were going to have a hard time singing the songs because they were faster-paced," said Hancock. "But these people are professional singers, and way better singers than me, so it was really easy for them. ... It's almost like karaoke, but with really good singers."
As rehearsal was coming to another late-evening end, Parkinson waxed on about Punk Rock Opera in the cold wind blowing through HOT's alleyway.
Inside, the 86 List worked its pop-punk guitar-and-bass attack on "Punx" while the HOT vocalists passionately wailed the chorus "We're just punx! We're just punx!" as if rehearsing for the Met.
"This project is actually a natural extension of what we're doing with the HOT education program: reaching out to kids and helping educate them about what music, and ultimately opera, is," Parkinson said. "I think there's a real synergy here between opera and punk taking the opera talent and voice training and putting it together with what's fresh and new in rock."
He wasn't sure of what kind of audience would show up on Saturday night, but was hopeful Punk Rock Opera would attract enough interest to return in 2005.
"Unity Crayons has a core following. These bands have a core following. If all we reach is them, we've succeeded. Anyone else that shows up is a benny."
Reach Derek Paiva at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8005.