Throw away those images of thin young men with Mohawks listening to hardcore punk rock that just came to mind. That’s not what this opera by Gaithersburg resident Stephan Alexander Parker is about.
In fact, Parker’s “A Roadkill Opera” pairs the formerly obscure classical music of Ferdinando Paer, one of Beethoven’s contemporaries, with Parker’s semi-autobiographical libretto recounting the hour before the opening night performance of the sketch comedy “Roadkill Live!!!” on Independence Day 1988 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
This is punk in its purest sense—art not created with commercial intent. And in the spirit of the ‘80s punk movement, it reaches out to the everyday audience as participant.
“Punk is about doing things yourself. It’s ownership and engagement,” Parker explained. “You do not watch. It’s more fun to get engaged and do than watch.”
Parker’s own engagement in his project is so great that he allows he might not be where he is today if he had conceptualized it from the start. It all began with a search for the music.
As a student at Northwestern in the ‘80s, Parker would record radio music and create mix tapes. One of the tapes that survived from those days held some classical music that captivated his spirit, but he had no idea what it was.
Despite his best efforts, he would not solve this mystery until 2004 when he and his wife, Deb, took a trip to Vienna, Austria. They went to consult staff at the Wiener Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera, only to find that the most knowledgeable music minds in the world were stumped.
Luckily, a staffer there sent Parker to a nearby CD shop, recommending that he speak to a former Wiener Staatsoper staffer. That individual did not recognize the music either, but the boyfriend of another employee was an expert on opera. Taking a chance, Parker relinquished his only copy of the music.
The next day he had his answer: Ferdinando Paer’s “Leonora, ossia L’amore coniugale,” 1804. Only one commercial recording of the opera existed, made in 1979.
Serendipity continued. A month later found Parker in Minneapolis on business. Over sidewalk beers, a friend suggested he try a used bookstore across the street. Doubtful, Parker went in and found the out-of-print boxed set for “Leonora,” complete with libretto in Italian and English translation. The price was just $9.
Parker then spent years listening to the music sung in Italian, puzzling over what the Italian phrases sounded like to him in English and fitting his new lyrics to the notes. Parker said he followed the advice, write what you know.
“I wanted to remember what it was like then (in Jackson Hole, circa 1988),” he said. “We were just coming out of the recession, and we created our own entertainment. … You could get only two TV stations in Jackson Hole sometimes.”
Paer’s opera was written for five characters. Parker’s 1988 “Roadkill Live” sketch comedy featured four performers. Deb, who would later become his wife, sometimes handled the box office.
Parker had his five new characters. He thought his new, modern opera could work. But he also needed either rights to the 1979 recording or a score.
For years the project was on hold. The record company never responded to Parker’s request for rights, and he was unable to locate a score. Then in 2007, he learned that the Bampton Opera in London would be producing “Leonora” in September 2008.
He and Deb went to London, and they liked the new score created by a Scottish arranger. Parker took the plunge and purchased the score for the overture and first act.
Then things really got interesting.
His wife, Deb, said that “she liked the story of his ‘chasing it down’ almost as much as the music,” and Parker wrote the book, “If you see roadkill, think opera.”
And through a colleague at this day job, Martine Micozzi, who is also a musician, Parker connected with Jeffrey Dokken, music director and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia.
“I had never heard a note of it,” Dokken said. “It’s great music from a lesser-known composer. … Beethoven based his ‘Leonora’ on Paer’s. Stephan did a wonderful job of keeping the integrity of the music.”
Dokken and Parker workshopped “A Roadkill Opera” at Artomatic 2012 in Crystal City, Virginia. A year later, they brought most of the same cast back together to record the new opera at Blue House Studio in Kensington.
Dokken would like to see a fully staged version produced someday. “I am a big advocate of making opera more accessible to more people … of popularizing opera.”
“It’s going to have to find its audience,” Parker said.
But the Gaithersburg artist who brought his opera CD and book to this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival is not at all concerned.
“It’s fun to do it,” he said. “It’s more fun to share it with others—even more fun if they can morph it themselves.”
Songs like “Impress Them,” “Cod Piece Dining,” “Jello,” and (Gonna buy my old granddad a) “Geo,” pair offbeat humor with beautiful vocals and music. Parker said his collaboration with Paer went very well; the composer never said a word.
“People are more than one thing and do more than one thing,” Parker said. “I liked that about Wyoming—there was a different focus,” and people did not define themselves by their day jobs.
“A Roadkill Opera” is art for art’s sake, and Parker has found that “anything is possible in the arts.”
For more information, visit roadkillopera.com. The CD and book can be purchased locally at Lashof Violins, 1 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg, or through Amazon.