ProFile: Fresh Aria | East Village Opera Company

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East Village Opera Company
Photo: Dean Karr

Classical influences are nothing new in rock music: back in the '70s and '80s, virtuosos like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yngwie Malmsteen were more likely to be influenced by Paganini than by Presley. East Village Opera Company (EVOC) — founded by arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and programmer Peter Kiesewalter, along with singer Tyley Ross — has carried on the tradition by using rock instruments and arrangements to play arias from the classical canon. “The philosophy of this project is simple: playing old music on new instruments,” Kiesewalter says. “And while we see blues, jazz, rock, and country artists rework old songs all of the time, I don't see many artists stripping away arias of their orchestrations and treating them as simple songs” (see Web Clip 1).

Canadians Kiesewalter and Ross developed the idea of performing operatic arias with a live rock band while working together on a film score. Soon a residency at a New York City club was followed by a major-label recording contract and an eponymous debut album on which, Kiesewalter says, the material didn't change much from the stage to the record.

The band's sophomore effort, Olde School (Decca/Universal, 2008), came together more slowly. “We basically had to write, arrange, and record this album while we were still touring the last one,” Kiesewalter explains. “I knew there was no way we would be able to record it in a hurry. So I found a space on the Lower East Side in New York, pulled lumber out of Dumpsters, built my studio, and bought some gear that would enable us to do it slowly and organically at our own pace.”

Before recording could begin, the band needed to choose the arias, match them to singers (they work with several in addition to Ross), develop arrangements, and write English lyrics based on the spirit of the original pieces. “Then we'd do rough demos in MIDI using [Spectrasonics] Trilogy for bass and [Toontrack] EZ Drummer for drums — later adding rough guitars, MIDI keys, and orchestral instruments,” Kiesewalter says.

The band's rhythm section rehearsed with charts developed from these demo sessions. As the tunes came together, Kiesewalter wrote orchestral parts on paper before transferring them to Sibelius notation software. (The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra recorded the final orchestral tracks in Prague.) The nonorchestral instruments were recorded into Digidesign Pro Tools. The basic tracks were cut at commercial facilities, and most of the overdubs were done at Kiesewalter's studio.

Kiesewalter says EVOC used a lot of analog gear, miking electric guitar played loudly through vintage amps and deploying an arsenal of hardware keyboards like the Moog Voyager, Nord Lead, Hammond B-3 through a Leslie, and Wurlitzer electric piano. “We used no real tricky recording techniques to speak of — just microphones in front of musicians and amplifiers,” he notes. “The stereo electric parts were my Wurlitzer 200A through a Fender Vibro Champ on one side, doubled with Digidesign's Velvet plug-in on the other for that Supertramp vibe” (see Web Clip 2).

Additional studio tools used by Kiesewalter included a Line 6 POD for some guitar tracks and a range of soft synths such as Logic ES2, EastWest Nostalgia, and McDSP SynthOne.

Would EVOC's use of fuzz and filters make the classical masters roll over in their graves? Kiesewalter doesn't think so. “Mozart, Puccini, et al. would use Pro Tools and electric guitars were they alive today.”

Home base: New York City

Sequencer of choice: Digidesign Pro Tools

Keyboards used: Moog Voyager, Hammond B-3, Nord Lead, Wurlitzer 200A