“Guns N’ Rosenkavalier” hits some bumps but ends with a bang
Opera singer Andrew Wilkowske lets his inner rocker out, fusing art and rock song without many missteps.
Friday evening, Milwaukee Opera Theatre opened Guns N’ Rosenkavalier, a rock and art music fusion concert featuring Andrew Wilkowske. Wilkowske is an opera singer by profession, who usually performs at venues like the Florentine or Skylight, but it’s when he started playing guitar that he knew he wanted to be a musician. It’s fitting, then, that he should want to fuse the two musical influences in his life for such a unique performance, which blended them brilliantly with only a few rough patches.
Wilkowske didn’t perform the concert’s multiple song sets solo; he was frequently joined on stage by pianist Ruben Piirainen and all-female horn group Genghis Barbie (Danielle Kuhlmann, Rachel Drehmann, Alana Vegter, Leelanee Sterrett). Together and apart, their setlists featured blends of artists as rock or pop as Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen and Alicia Keys and as classical as Shubert, Brahms and Faure, all arranged by Wilkowske and composer John Glover.
How to blend such different artists? The very first song offered the perfect example: Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” performed solo by Wilkowske and his explosively vibrant voice. At first, the introduction of an operatic voice to a classic rock song was a bit jarring, but it soon became the norm. Piirainen and Genghis Barbie took turns joining in thereafter, the latter performing an unbelievable take on REM’s “Nightswimming” with Wilkowske that melded his romantic vocals with harmonious horns.
Genghis Barbie performed a few pieces solo as well, breaking up the first act. In Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” the quartet exhibited incredible mimicry of Freddie Mercury’s voice, and their follow-up, Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) had such unending stamina and charisma that Wilkowske admitted he didn’t want to follow it.
But follow it he did, with Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris,” which he dubbed “the 19th century equivalent to a power ballad,” and a powerful performance of Madonna’s “Open Your Heart.” He turned himself into quite the comedian with the latter, holding up pieces of sheet music with a heart drawn on the back, then tearing it up and throwing it about like confetti.
That momentum brought Guns N’ Rosenkavalier to its intermission, but it dissipated in the interim. Genghis Barbie led off the second act with two Kate Bush songs, “This Woman’s Work” and “Deeper Understanding.” The performances were beautiful, especially with half the group on the other side of the Wisconsin Conservatory space to immerse the audience in the sound, but their low tempo and mellowness served as a poor opener to the act.
Conditions did not improve with the “Winterreise Train Wreck,” a mashup of Shubert, Gnarls Barkley and Lady Gaga. After the strong combinations of the first act, the eclectic mix sounds viable, but it turned out to be little more than a Schubert piece with a flare of Gnarls Barkley at the start and the intro to “Bad Romance” on electric guitar between the two. Shortly after, Piirainen and Genghis Barbie played arrangements of Radiohead’s “Let Down” and Schumann’s “Adagio Quartet,” respectively, but while both were beautifully played, the pace had slowed them enough that they served more like lullabies.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Guns N’ Rosenkavalier has two more performances, tonight (Saturday) at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m., at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Tickets are $20, $25 premium reserved and $15 for students/seniors. Order at Brown Paper Tickets or call (800) 838-3006.