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Backstage as Baltimore Rock Opera Society prepares its latest: “Valhella”

Can productions from the bowel-churning depths reach operatic heights?

Gaines Johnston, as Odin, confronts Ryan Dunne, as Ivar, in upcoming rock opera “Valhella.”

Gaines Johnston, as Odin, confronts Ryan Dunne, as Ivar, in a rehearsal of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s “Valhella,” premiering May 11.

Photo by: Doug Birch

Lo, as spring awakens Earth from its fitful slumber, the gods and demigods again descend from the mists of their remote mountain fastness to Baltimore’s green and pleasant shores, where these immortals wage war against the fates, engage the forces of darkness and achieve noble victories.

All the while playing incendiary riffs on air guitars.

So it is written and so it shall be.

On Friday May 11, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society will premier its latest original production, Valhella: The Ragnarokkoperetta, another of the group’s torrid tales of superhuman heroism and suffering. The show is loosely adapted from Norse mythology and executed in pursuit of what composer Richard Wagner, the misty godfather of the BROS’ artistic vision, called gesamtkunstwerk – that mashup of spectacle, ritual, dance, music, theater and other artsy stuff that is opera at its most extreme.

Aran Keating of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society

Aran Keating, a founder of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, directs a "stumble through" of the upcoming production. (Photo by Doug Birch)

Earlier this week, a few dozen of BROS’ mostly twenty-something cast and crew gathered at the Autograph Playhouse on west North Avenue, a former 285-seat neighborhood movie house transformed by a new stage and lots of red paint on the walls, for what theater professionals call a “stumble through” of Valhella.

(The BROS website boasts it will be “the most bowel-releasingest rock theater production to date.”)

Woe be unto him or her, though, who is fooled by the joking tone of such pronouncements. Or by the clowning around, the mugging for visitors or the frequent tossing back of cans of Natty Boh, the opera company’s Official Beer, between scenes.

Beneath multiple layers of irony, the brothers and sisters of Baltimore rock opera seem to harbor some fairly serious artistic ambitions for their high-energy, high-concept productions.

Dreaming Big

“What’s going to happen is that we’re going to take this on tour to Berlin and Tokyo,” says Dylan Koehler, one of the five founding members of the Society, who is listed on the website as Grand Viceroy of Harmonious Operations but who, like many Society members, has a day job. In his case, as grants writer for an area academic institution.

“And Amsterdam!” a crew member chimes in.

“And Amsterdam,” he echoes, his angular frame awkwardly folded into an Autograph theater seat. “The idea is that we can perfect this craft and the gesamtkunstwerk, as it were. The rock opera and the way we have defined it and we have imaged it is really a powerful art form that is going to connect with a lot of people. It has a lot to offer.”

 The Baltimore Rock Opera Society's Dylan Koehler plays an awesome air guitar while John Marra eggs him on.

The Baltimore Rock Opera Society's Dylan Koehler plays an awesome air guitar, egged on by John Marra. (Photo by Doug Birch)

Koehler said his dream is for the group to reach the point where it can operate as a full-time opera company, with its own Baltimore studio, producing an original full-length production each year and taking it on the road.

“It definitely hasn’t happened yet. But it’s getting more and more realistic by the day,” he said. “We’re just getting a lot better at finding the right people and making sure they stay involved.”

Creating the props, elaborate sets, costumes, music and libretto for shows like Valhella – a tale of three demi-gods, all brothers, on a quest in forest full of magical beings – can be a test of artistic skills and physical stamina for the society’s 60-odd volunteers. And those who aren’t willing to work, and work hard, don’t tend to stick around.

“There are lots of people with great ideas,” said Jared Margulies, another founder and a member of the Valhella cast. “There are fewer people who can make those ideas a reality.”

It helps, perhaps, that the society can draw on the growing pool of talented young artists and performers living in Baltimore as a result of the surge in interest in arts education generally and what seems to be an increasing number of area college graduates who decide to stay in the city.

Five friends, Koehler, Margulies, Aran Keating, John DeCampos and Eli Breitburg-Smith – several of whom attended Goucher College – founded the rock opera group in 2007, and spent two years on their first opera, Grundelhammer. By one account, it grew out of an inspirational night of beer drinking while watching Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto.

Grundelhammer is the story of a boy who sets out to avenge his parent’s death with the help of a guitar master, an extended riff (so to speak) on the Star Wars themes. The October 2009 performance was accessorized with, among other things, a fog machine and live shadow puppet show, and created a cadre of fans.

The libretto was a collaborative effort, Koehler says. “Instead of one person and a glass of whiskey in front of the typewriter, it’s a lot of people with a bottle of whiskey and a computer somewhere nearby,” he says.

Two  years later, in May 2011, the BROS staged a rock opera double header, Amphion and The Terrible Secret of Lunastus, which included a scene where an android character [in this video below] — played by singer-actor Lily W. Susskind, with help from suit builder Chuck Green and sound person Erika Pakota _ performed a haunting melody.

While the first rock opera was the product of BROS brainstorming, the libretto for Valhella was more or less the work of one writer, Jen Tydings, who is also serving as the show’s artistic director. She sat in the front row of the theater near the director, Keating, on Tuesday and used two laptops to cue the music and take notes on the stumble through.

Tydings juggles her work for the opera society with running the Patterson Perk, an Eastern Avenue coffee shop. She has been friends with the founders from the time they were all in college, and joined a few years ago.

Asked about being a woman in a place as testosterone-charged as BROS, Tydings conceded that the society “is predominantly male, the aesthetic is predominantly male.”

One of her aims in writing the script, she said, was to help broaden the opera company’s appeal to women without losing touch with its core audience. “I just don’t want people to pigeonhole us.”

She said the founding BROS have been very supportive. “All those guys are super accepting and if the talent is there and you work hard they’re behind you 100 percent.”

People Who Believe in the Power of Rock

While BROS is still in engaged in its own epic struggle for immortality, it has been producing its stupendous productions on the cheap, budgeted at just $10,000 apiece, which is about what they earn in ticket sales.

They stay within budget, Koehler says, mainly because almost everyone involved is a volunteer. One of the stars of Lunasta was the moonlighting manager of a Whole Foods Market, who donated his time, while all of the costumes for Valhella are being designed by a Maryland Institute College of Art student Naomi Davidoff, working as an intern.

Soprano Vangie Ridgaway, who has sung with other theater groups, appears in the chorus in Valhella. She says she likes the rock opera society because it is so collaborative and all of its works are original.

“The energy is kind of infectious,” she said. “The people who do this love this. You can tell that a lot of devotion went into it. There is a lot of sincerity in it. These are people who believe in the power of rock.”

The society also cuts costs by getting a deal on materials for sets and props. The steel being welded into Valhella’s signature Tree of Life prop was discounted, Koehler said, while a city retailer donated the paint used to turn the Autograph’s walls blood-orange red.

Koehler says the brewers of National Bohemian also kick in cases of beer, although in the course of a production, he adds, BROS volunteers find the need to supplement those supplies frequently.

For other outrageous and intriguing milestones in the annals of Baltimore’s current culture renaissance, consult the Brew’s new Coming at You calendar here.

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  • Unellu

    Another appropriate title for this piece–National Bohemian, Nordic chicanery and  Numerous Operatic Dreams.  Beautifully written article but I shall pass.  Just saw Porgy and Bess.  Opera is an excruciating art form.  I went with a diehard opera fan who considers me a Philistine for not being enthralled with all things opera. 

    The trouble with any opera is –it is interminable and interminably boring–if it had the guts to stop at the first intermission it would be innocuous but since it insists on rolling through one if not two intermissions, a person not enamored–or should I simply say a person not inane–has to be positively intrepid to suffer it. 

    Don’t tell me a rock opera is different.  Say it to my good friend the opera fan.  She’ll buy any fables about opera.  She tells me you have to be musically highly developed and have a proper sense of melodrama, costume and atmosphere to savor opera.  She pities me from her operatic pinnacle. 

    The only piece of operatic music I like is belted out with no dramatic visuals or sentimental sop to back it up.  It is an aria I cannot identify from the Kohler shower commercial–its redeeming feature?  Brevity and the absolute deliciousness of being witness to the shower induced operatic spasms of a repairman.  Now that is an operatic interlude even I can enjoy.            

    • anonymous

      Man, I haven’t seen such a pretentious comment in a long while. Sounds like this person can’t be bothered to have any fun. Let me know if any other commercials entertain you as much as that Kohler one.

  • Chuck Green

    The paint is actually Pig’s Blood Red. 

    • Anonymous

      Thank-you Chuck, duly noted.

  • Westside Resident

    BROS represents all that is well and good and evil in this city. Every production is a labor of love and it shows.  Carry on BROS, carry on.

  • Unellu

    Anonymouse– Thank you for your snap judgment.  Pretentiously expressed, by your standards, but true sentiments–I had fun writing the pretension.  I know it drives people like you–with no pretensions whatsoever–up a wall.  Just kidding.  Shed your presumptions about my inability to have any fun.  Are you sure you are not Adriana my friend, in a snit about my disappearing into the bathroom for 15 minutes during the most affecting parts of Porgy and Bess?  Talk about pretentious.  I should not have written all that pretentious stuff.  I should have simply called opera pretentious and left it there. Do any other commercials entertain me as much as the Kohler one?  Many and they don’t have any opera in them.  Who are you?  The inventor of Pig’s Blood Red?  If you are, then you certainly are having a lot of fun.     

  • Keith Becraft

    This show is greatest thing Baltimore has seen since the 1983 Os’ penant run. Can I get a Valhellyeah?!?

  • Hater in Chief

    Those BROS are a bunch of oafish, beer-drinking thugs! What kind of sick people would take human remains and fashion them into a guitar for the purpose of their “art”? How would you feel if one of your grandparents’ bones were dug up from the grave, polished with a semi-gloss finish and a silver trim outline, tricked out with humbucking pickups, and transformed into the most metal thing Baltimore has ever seen? I wonder if these people can sleep at night…probably not, they’re some sort of Zombie freaks feeding off of the fermented remains of the souls they’ve claimed!

    And pretentious–who are they to presume that this “VALHELLA” will be so bone-crushingly awesome that the full contents of my bowels will immediately and uncontrollably be released in a spasm of ungodly terror? Would they even be prepared to clean that up?

  • persanes

    I hope the sound quality is better this time.  And that it’s shorter.  A group of us went last year and left about 2 hours into it because the breathing into the microphones became almost unbearable.

  • Unellu

    persanes, perchance you are an opera fan and you still want short but I am not an opera fan and I think short will save opera from extinction.  You waited two hours to leave?  Your story is the same as mine with Porgy and Bess.  I stayed for three hours or more with a long break in the bathroom.  And Hater in Chief, that may not be a real skull and those may not be real bones on that guitar.  We live in a plastic world.  I hope you don’t spill the full contents of your bowels anywhere and it is obvious you haven’t been in the Chapel of Bones in Evora, Portugal.  It is made up entirely of bones from dedicated devotees who bequeathed their remains to the chapel.  It is exquisite.  I am not saying these opera singers should cover their guitars with human skin or decorate their instruments with human bones–but do you think you could live with being a mini hater and a mini chief?  On the other hand, if you revel in being a contrarian and all that you posted was tongue in cheek, by all means, keep your tongue right in your cheek and be Hater in Chief.   

  • Britt

    I am not sure why there are so many haters posting here, but I have had a wonderful time working with the BROS and we’re going to put on something spectacular.

  • wilsonsmailbox

    Went to the show last year and they are quite possibly the funniest, most original thing Baltimore has going for it. The only negative comments I can make about the experience is that the theatre itself had very poor ventilation and completely no air conditioning. It made for a hot, sweaty, rock-filled night – which now that I mention it, is exactly what you’re paying for.

  • Unellu

    Only a few people have posted here Britt and mostly you’ve got favorable reviews.  What do you want?  Absolute adoration?  Not if you are dreaming of international tours.  Go forth and conquer.   Except for Hater in Chief and the opera averse like me the world is on your side.  Shorten your show–improve your sound system–put a few fans where you are performing and then you will win over the doubters.  Rock away.  May be Hater in Chief will come with a skull in his hand and bones in his teeth.  

  • Johno

    EVERYONE STOP TRYING TO CONVINCE UNELLU TO DO SOMETHING AWESOME IF UNELLU DOESN’T WANT TO IT’S TOTALLY COOL AND IT’S ALSO TOTALLY COOL TO LEAVE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SHOW IF YOUR EARS HURT AND YOU’RE SWEATY AND STUFF BECAUSE WE DON’T CARE AND WE’RE GOING TO KEEP DOING THIS ALL THE TIME FOREVER SO EVERYONE JUST RELAX AND STOP TRYING TO PROVE THAT SOMEONE ON THE INTERNET IS WRONG BECAUSE THAT SHIT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME.  

    PIGS BLOOD RED LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER.

    VALHELLYEAH.

  • HATERNCHIEF’SPUPPYDOG

    I like my rock opera with a good dose of beer and sweat, and more sweat- Vikings didn’t have AC and neither shall we, they kept themselves cool, calm and berserker with psychotropic drugs and lots of beer. and maidens. BROLIFE

  • Gerald Neily

    I happen to be a prog rock nut and believe Genesis’ never-produced rock opera, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” to be one of the great works of the rock era, but I realize there is a fine line between transcendental uber pretension in excelsis and cringe worthiness, like the Decemberists recent fabulous “Hazards of Love”. The closer you can get to tightroping that fine line of good artistic taste, the better, so rock on BROS !!!!!! 

  • persanes

    Wow, I didn’t realize that just pointing out some flaws warrants my being branded “hater in chief.”  Perhaps I wasn’t clear: I thought the concept was great–but the execution wasn’t.  I hope the show improves.  If BROS seriously wants this to move beyond the “college friends do something wacky for a couple of years” phase, then it’s going to have to get used to criticism far more robust than mine.  I work in DC, and some colleagues of mine who saw BROS at the H Street Festival thought the same–great concept, but execution could use some improvement.  

  • Unellu

    persanes you are not hater in chief–that honor belongs to another.  You are plain hater and the bad part about that?  You’ve been classed with me.

    You may have to bring a fan to the concert, because sweaty and lengthy it shall be.  BROS is too full of Natty Bo and testosterone to listen to advice on mundane matters like heat, sweat, inordinate length of show and mike malfunctions that produce unbearable reverberating whispers.  Do you not understand Norsemen overheated, sweated, ravished many women and didn’t have fans or mikes? 

    I don’t believe you are reading all the posts from the group.  You are trying to advance them from the amateur to the more polished and professional.  They are not yet prepared to advance though they dream of international fame.  They are having too much fun.  They want you to hang up your feedback and come along for a heady ride.

     They need to grow up and I am guessing they will.  Johno sounds like one of their grown ups–may be not in his language but his heart seems in the right place.       

  • Valkyrie In Chief

    The show is less than two hours and there will be freshly brewed, cold viking beer on tap.  Did I mention highest production value in Baltimore?  Aaaand its cheap?  To complain about this is to scoff at all that is good and right in a world full of wrong.  And so, as I write, I raise a tankard of the finest brew…A TOAST TO THEE, HATERS!  MAY YE LIVE LONG AND MISERABLE WHILST I DO BASK IN THE GLOW OF ALL THE MEAD IN VALHALLA! 

  • Unellu

    A toast to thee immature and imbecilic Vikings of Valhalla-may your livers glow red with the wallops you’re delivering them and may your eyes go bleary and your hearts go weary as you whisper hoarsely into your mikes and riff your riffs

    • Ryan Dunne (Ivar)

      Actually none of the three lead vikings/sons of Odin drink alcohol of any kind, so you needn’t worry or toast that to us.  And I can affirm, you will hear some very sweet and lovely vocals in this production.  This article does seem to make it sound like everyone is dropping natty bohs at rehearsal, but… it’s not really true.

  • Unellu

    Thank you for the clarification Ryan Dunne.  It was fun parrying with the stout Vikings of your group.  Between the Natty Bohemians and the abstemious non Natty Bohemians, the former bleary eyed and cirrhotic and the latter sweet and melodious, I am sure you’ll have one heck of an evening.  I’ll pass, not because I assume you will not put on a good show, but because  am still reeling from Porgy and Bess and operatic ventures, even the rock kind, scare me.  But you should have a healthy dose of patrons because original productions are rare and daring, both.  Good luck.  

  • Bozorgmir

    Sound baffling has been installed, a sound proof booth for the band has been built and  I can assure you that this show is the best sounding thing we’ve ever done, not to mention the best looking.

    I encourage everyone to come out and have a listen and a look when we debut this show this weekend and next, but act fast cause pre-sales are almost sold out.

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