February 10, 2013

A Rock Opera Society Celebrates an Artin All Its Excess

Photograph by Heather Keating

Here, the actor Jack Sossman plays the character Bjerg in the society’s production of Valhella: The Ragnarøkkoperetta. This work told the tale of the lost three sons of Norse god Odin and was something of a spoof on the operas of Richard Wagner, which often deal with Nordic legend.

The motto of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society is In Panton Redundo—Latin for “in every­thing, excess.” For Jared Margulies, a co-founder of the all-volunteer arts charity, it means the rock-driven stage shows go all out: epic stories, elaborate sets, fanciful costumes, colorful lights, even fog machines and lasers.

“There is a kind of intensity—an extremeness—to everything we’re trying to bring to the stage,” he says. “It is all about stirring emotions.”

The rock opera concept was born in the 1960s, and works such as Tommy, by The Who, and The Wall, by Pink Floyd, exemplify the genre. The Baltimore company has staged five all-original rock operas, along with a few smaller works, since its founding in 2007. Most shows are held at an aged movie theater retrofitted somewhat for live performances.

Each production entails a creative collaboration among several dozen volunteers: writers, musicians, actors, costumers, and sundry artists who design and build sets. They do it all on a shoestring budget of around $40,000 a year, almost all of which comes from ticket sales.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a set that wasn’t built at least partially out of beer cans,” Mr. Margulies says. “Papier-mâché, cardboard, hot glue­—if we can find it for free, we’ll probably use it.”

But this upstart opera company, which a group of college buddies started on a lark, is ready to move to the next level. Recently the charity acquired space in an old industrial building for rehearsals and to house scenery and costume shops. The goal now, Mr. Margulies says, is to persuade foundations to make grants that will allow the society to take its performances on a national tour.

“We are not a lowbrow theater company, and we are not a highbrow company,” Mr. Margulies says. “We just want to produce the best art we can by pulling from all kinds of materials. We have 8-year-olds in the audience going nuts, and we have our grandmothers loving it at the same time.”