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‘From grief to gratitude’: Boston Rock Opera salutes the life and legacy of David Bowie

 

In the seven months since the shocking death of David Bowie, tributes to the late musical icon have continued to spring up in and around Boston and across the country. At the time of his death, we noted that selecting a favorite song from the Duke was a personal matter; each seemed to have a different moment, or period, or album, that helped shape his or her fandom, and in many cases, unlock the door to devout obsession. Those personal anecdotes from fans were as diverse as the local tributes that poured in: glam rock spectaculars, wild dance parties, subdued acoustic shows, burlesque performances, and now, more than a half-year later, a rock opera.

This weekend at ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, the Boston Rock Opera is resurrected for a two-night extravaganza (Saturday and Sunday) that celebrates the bookends of Bowie’s brilliant career. In “Stardust to Blackstar: The Lives of David Bowie”, roughly three-dozen performers and presenters come together in the Highland Avenue space for a party not only fit for an interstellar rock God, but one reflective of the Boston music scene and the emotion felt from one of music’s greatest losses.

On tap is a full performance of 1972 classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars and Bowie’s final verse (for now, at least), January’s Blackstar. An all-star band led by Matt Sullivan (Aquanutz, Cocked and Loaded) will sprinkle in some Bowie classic between the two albums, with guests like John Powhida, Clinton Degan, Andrea Gillis, Rodrigo Van Stoli, Michelle Palhaus, and Future Starlets ringleader Gene Dante.

 

In advance of the celebrations, Vanyaland caught up with Boston Rock Opera co-producers Eleanor Ramsay and Erica Mantone, as well as co-music-director Russ Gershon, for a quick exchange over email about just how the many pieces of “Stardust to Blackstar” came together.

Michael Marotta: The legacy of Bowie is enormous, but if you could sum up the event in a few sentences, what would you say?

Eleanor Ramsay: It’s going to be an over-the-top concert event featuring a vast cross-section of Boston music talent. It is a true tribute to Bowie’s genius and, like the best of memorials, there will be great music, enormous highs and deep emotions.

 
 

How does the music of Bowie translate to an opera?

Erica Mantone: Bowie is one of rock music’s premiere storytellers. Boston Rock Opera presents rock opera, concept albums, and celebrates great storytelling through song. BRO’s goal has always been to feature Boston musicians — from many different genres, coming together to create creative musical experiences for artist and audience.

Eleanor Ramsay: We are presenting Bowie’s first and last concept albums in their entirety, and an additional set of great tunes from his vast catalogue. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tells the story of an extraterrestrial who comes to earth to corrupt and entertain us in the face of our imminent destruction. Blackstar is a requiem for a dying man, his observations, corruptions and personas finished, returning to the heavens.

How’d you choose the players for this party?

 
 

Eleanor Ramsay: I already had some ideas about voices for Blackstar the first time I listened to the record! The first task was to convince Russ Gershon to take it on.

Russ Gershon: In putting together the Blackstar band, I wanted to create an ensemble out of people who didn’t know each other, to give us the feeling of exploring a mysterious place together, like people randomly thrown together by a plane crash in a murky jungle and finding their way home. I counted on everybody’s tremendous skill and personalities, and their love of the material, to help us “survive” and make it out alive.

Erica Mantone: To put the whole night together, we reached out to everybody we knew from multiple music circles. Each music director (Mick Mondo, Russ, and Matt Sullivan) put their bands together. There were so many people interested in performing because Bowie was such a enormous influence and inspiration.

How emotional is it to take on the entirety of Blackstar?

 
 

Russ Gershon: It’s not the same for everybody, but for me the process of absorbing the music on a microscopic level has helped me turn my feeling from grief to gratitude that we have this huge body of work left to us by one of the true artistic geniuses of our era. It’s been a slow catharsis. Now that all the parts are in place, I don’t doubt I will feel waves of strong emotion during performance.

I am reminded of playing in the Orchestra Morphine tour after the death of Mark Sandman, a dear friend and collaborator of mine. The band was always ahead of the audience in the grieving process, so the concerts would start with audience huddled morosely in the back of the room, but slowly follow our lead toward the light, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. By the end most (but not all) of them were dancing and celebrating. I don’t know if this will have similar arc. We will find out.

BOSTON ROCK OPERA PRESENTS ‘STARDUST TO BLACKSTAR: THE LIVES OF DAVID BOWIE’: Saturday, August 6 and Sunday, August 7 at ONCE Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville, MA :: 8 p.m., all ages, $18 in advance and $20 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page

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