Squonk Opera offers ‘majestic’ experience

Experimental band provides unique combination of lights, instrumentals, videos, props

It would’ve been difficult to fall asleep during this opera.

From the fast-moving, flashing lights and interactive video elements to groovy electronic and acoustic instrumentation, there was a whole lot going on onstage. And a voice that switched between ethereal, angelic tones and belting, raw power tied the chaos together.

Squonk Opera, an experimental performance group originally founded in Pittsburgh, brought its show “Mayhem and Majesty” to Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College this weekend, transporting the audience to a psychedelic world where listeners could see what music looks like.

Vocalist Anna Elder kicked off the show, cranking up an old-fashioned phonograph and then taking her place center stage as the music resonated live. The four-piece band, made up of piano/keyboard/accordion player Jackie Dempsey, drummer Kevin Kornicki, wind/brass player Steve O’Hearn and electric guitarist David Wallace, blasted the audience with an intense explosion of sound, filling the auditorium with an incredible amount of noise. The “mayhem” was definitely felt, so much so that audience members didn’t quite know when they were supposed to clap.

The next piece, “Between the Brain and the Beat,” incorporated a circular video screen through which the audience could see Dempsey’s expressions. She wore a metal headdress/helmet that Elder manipulated by pushing valves and pulling cords. O’Hearn brought out a saxophone, bringing a jazzier vibe to the stage that paired well with Elder’s sultry, dark and sassy vocals as she wagged her finger and shook her hips like a true diva.

Elder’s voice was beautiful and displayed power and control, but it was difficult to decipher lyrics throughout the show. A lot of meaning was lost on the audience, but the words can be found online at squonkopera.org.

Multimedia played as big a role in Squonk Opera’s performance as the musicians did. A bird’s-eye view of Dempsey and Kornicki’s hands as they played their respective instruments on “Strings vs. Skins” provided a unique perspective, as did a live feed of Elder’s mouth as she sang/spoke “What’s That Noise?”. As her tongue slid over her teeth and her bright red lips twitched, the audience really got up close and personal with the singer’s main instrument — her body. A virtual pair of blinking, widening eyes and a molded set of fake ears rounded out a creepy “face.”

Squonk’s pieces were written mostly by Dempsey, with a few done by Kornicki and others composed by the entire ensemble. They vary in length, so it was often difficult to determine when one ended and the next began, but there was never a dull moment. All set transitions happened quickly and were done while other performers were soloing.

The scenery was simple but effective. A large video screen provided rotating backgrounds when there wasn’t a live feed; some made sense (sound waves) while others didn’t (animals, cells and what could have been brain scans). 

During one piece, a field of eight white umbrellas were suspended from beams at the back of the stage. The motorized items opened and closed sporadically, hosting a rainbow of colors projected from the light booth. Dempsey let the music take her higher as she spent a large portion of Act 2 in a seat close to the ceiling, still playing piano. At another moment, a large white fan unfurled in front of the stage with images rotating across it. Once the pictures stopped, Elder was towering over it, her arms raised with poise as she delivered the final piece, “Majesty.”

“Mayhem and Majesty” is highly avant-garde; it’s part rock concert, part classical concerto and hardly anything like a traditional “opera.” Mozart, Verdi and Puccini would probably scoff at the term being used to define such a performance.

While opera may not be an accurate definition of the group’s genre, Squonk is comprised of a talented quintet of musicians who put on a show that had no boundaries or limits.

As the audience of mostly elderly couples and families with children filtered into the lobby, many could be heard saying, “Well, this is certainly broadening our horizons,” and “This is definitely like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

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