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Clearing the Aria

Upstart Ventura opera company performs 'Greatest Hits' again this weekend at Laurel Theatre.

February 16, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the friendly crush of the Christmas holidays, Ventura witnessed a momentous occasion--the birth of an operatic notion. A fledgling local company calling itself "Opera Unplugged" presented a concert and instilled hope for the future of an operatic presence in town.

Last weekend, it presented another show, "Bella Notte, Opera's Greatest Hits," at the Laurel Theatre, to be repeated this weekend. As the show's cheeky title suggests, the program is a selection of arias from popular opera repertoire.

On hand are sopranos Kerry Walsh, Arlene Thomas and Vicki Harrop (also the company's artistic director), tenor Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos, baritone Dan Tullis Jr. and bass Gene Brundage.

What does it mean?

Time will tell, but Opera Unplugged plans on presenting its premiere production, of Puccini's chestnut "La Boheme," later this year. Stay tuned.

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DETAILS

Opera Unplugged, "Bella Notte, Opera's Greatest Hits," 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St. in Ventura. Tickets are $32.50 for Friday, $27.50 for Sunday, $25 for seniors, $8 for student rush; 641-3839.

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Jazz From a Distant Shore: One of the most exciting jazz events in the area this year is the arrival of Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, whose debut American tour makes a stop at Santa Barbara's SohO on Tuesday. Stenson, whose name has been prominent for 30 years on the European scene, has made a splash in just the last few years with three strong trio records for the German ECM label. Last year's double-CD, "Serenity," was the best and most poetic yet.

At least one notable local connection draws Stenson to Santa Barbara--he was a right-hand man in Santa Barbara-based saxophonist Charles Lloyd's group for several years during the '90s. Lloyd himself may well show up and sit in at SohO. But the real star is the unassuming giant Stenson, whose masterful touch and cerebral but never dry style easily encompass classical, folk, avant-garde and other musical elements. Joining him will be fellow Lloyd alumnus Anders Jormin on bass and Billy Hart, who still plays with Lloyd, on drums.

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DETAILS

Bobo Stenson Trio, 8 p.m. Tuesday at SohO, upstairs, 1221 State St., Santa Barbara; 962-7776.

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Pluck of the Irish: Traditional Irish music has come of age in the last two decades, and one of the leaders of the movement, Altan, will stop at UCSB's Campbell Hall next Thursday. Formed in the early '80s in County Donegal, Altan has become a veritable supergroup in the bold subculture of traditional Irish music.

"We were always interested in the traditional way of doing it," said guitarist Daithi (pronounced DA-hee) Sproule, from a tour stop in Helena, Mont., this week. Sproule is the only emigre of the group, having lived in Minnesota since 1980, commuting back home to rehearse and record with the group.

Over the years, Sproule has watched Irish music get respect on a grand scale.

"When I first came out, there was a lot of traditional music, but the general public didn't know much about traditional music," Sproule said. "Even the music community didn't know much."

Sproule also points out that the traditional Irish music boom of the last two decades has affected the soil from which it grew.

"Ireland is funny," he said. "In Ireland, all the different forms of pop music that you have here would have been known and were listened to. You had bands playing blues and jazz, all the different trends. But it's peculiar: In Ireland, for some reason, country and western really has always been very popular, for the last 25 years. If you went into a local pub in Ireland 15 years ago, you'd have been far more likely to hear somebody playing country music than playing Irish music. It's really popular, and probably still is, to an extent.

"We used to call it country and Irish. You had all these different bands and singers. Probably a lot of them were actually good, artistically. I think the sentimental side, the story side of country music really appealed to Irish people."

Music from County Donegal, on the northern tip of Ireland close to Scotland, has a particular patina to it, which, Sproule explained, is partly because of its remoteness. "It was a wee bit cut off," Sproule said. "There were a lot of areas where people didn't leave very much, that were kind of self-contained. So a style grew up there that wasn't really known much."

The fiddling style, with its short, energetic bowing and general intensity, is one Donegal signature, and lead singer/fiddler Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is widely lauded for her playing. In addition, Sproule said, the Donegal style incorporates "all sorts of little tunes, like mazurkas and barn dances, tunes with a lot of character that weren't part of the mainstreams of the jigs and reels in Irish music. We've used a lot of those on our albums and our gigs. People in the Irish world find it very fresh. The reaction was sort of, 'It's Irish, but we haven't heard this before.' "

What many people have heard before is the old Bob Dylan song "Girl from the North Country," which is the sole non-Irish tune on the band's latest album, "Another Sky." The version has a spare, lyrical beauty that comes through Ni Mhaonaigh's lucid voice and guest Jerry Douglas' supple Dobro lines.

But anyone fearing that Altan is swerving from its traditional course can relax. "In all honesty," Sproule said, "I think that album was a wee bit different from previous albums. We kind of decided to put more songs on it, the vocal stuff, just as a change of balance. We're going to stick to our guns, traditionally speaking, but there is always the hope that, by some freak of fate, a song will become popular."

Hit song or no, Altan is deeply embedded in the Irish scene and always warrants a listen.

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DETAILS

Altan, 8 p.m. Thursday at UCSB's Campbell Hall. Tickets are $13-25; 893-3535.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at joeinfo@aol.com.

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