Frankly, it sounded like a terrible idea: arias from the world's best-known operas done up rock-style. But Olde School, the first major-label release from New
York's East Village Opera Company, is a daring effort that successfully places the towering emotions of the original works into a new musical context. Things
start off, appropriately enough, with "The Ride," as a male-female vocal duet invokes the God of War, trading off with a monster guitar riff. After the
shock wears off, that riff reveals itself as the martial motif of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" — but the arrangement clearly emulates the brutal
syncopation of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog."
The tone here is anything but reverential, which is part of why EVOC – the brainchild of producer/arranger Peter Kiesewalter and singer Tyley Ross – so often triumphs. Singers, players and arrangers who deeply understand the dramatic pitch of the operas approach them here from the rock side, frequently achieving a melodic energy gloriously reminiscent of Queen (and freely reworking the lyrics so they'll flow as pop songs). As with any grand experiment, Olde School occasionally falls on its face (notably with a foolhardy "smooth jazz" take on Verdi's La Traviata), but when it takes off, it soars.
The most affecting surprise is "Help Me (Jove, in Pity)," a reworking of the plaint from Handel's Semele sung by the incandescent AnnMarie Milazzo. Beginning with a hushed melody and bouncy piano figure, the track initially recalls the winsome power pop of Aimee Mann and Jellyfish. But then Brian May-esque guitars sweep in to up the ante. By the end, the entreaty, "Help these lips to refuse/ Or teach this heart to choose" has traveled from arch consternation to eternal agony. And in these days of facile pop and Idol-esque posturing, I'd be hard-pressed to refuse such a ride.