Tribal Baroque: Opera for the millennium

Tribal Baroque: Opera for the millennium

Lila'Angelique, left, and S. K. Thoth of Tribal Baroque perform at the Union Chapel on Sunday, August 31. — Dan Rubin

One of New York City’s most often witnessed and most talked-about performances is coming to the Vineyard this weekend. New York-based street performers S. K. Thoth and Lila’Angelique are known throughout the world for their unique brand of opera, though they tend to operate somewhat under the radar, so it’s only the lucky few who are in the right place at the right time who get to witness their colorful and emotionally charged act.

On Sunday, the two will present their very unique music and dance show Tribal Baroque at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for one performance (or “prayformance,” as they refer to their concerts). The show is a Wendy Taucher Dance Opera Theater production.

It’s a bit challenging to describe exactly what Tribal Baroque is. To begin with, there are the costumes. Thoth has a look that’s both androgynous (he tends to wear a skirt or apron/loincloth) and a blend of ethnic elements. His shaved head and facial adornments suggest a Tibetan monk, but he also incorporates a number of other cultures in his look with extreme eye makeup, fur, silver jewelry, and other adornments. His look, like that of his partner and wife Lila’Angelique, changes from performance to performance. Lila is partial to pink and white, and in hair, makeup, and clothing and she favors feathers, flowers, and elaborately bejeweled facial art. While Thoth embodies sort of a savage virility, Lila is pure feminine with more than a touch of the Romantic era of periwigs and frills.

Despite what might be seen as an outlandish look, the husband and wife duo are very serious musicians and vocal technicians. Lila sings in a beautiful coloratura soprano voice. Thoth is an accomplished countertenor and classically trained violinist whose mother played timpani for the New York Philharmonic. Both performers play violin expertly while providing percussion through multiple rows of ankle bells.

The performances are mini operas based on a fable of Thoth’s own imagining. In his days as a solo act, Thoth created a country, language, and mythology around which he based a complex series of song and dance pieces. Lila joined him in 2009, adding another element and a great deal of depth to the story and performance.

“It’s changed everything,” Lila said of their collaboration in a recent Skype interview. Thoth had his own energy — the male. Now it’s very much yin and yang with both of us both feeding off each other. There’s a lot more energy to work with. The performance is more fleshed out.”

The music is unusual for its invented language, but the compositions are classically structured and quite beautiful and very rhythmic. The music incorporates classical sensibilities and elements from a number of ethnicities including gypsy and other folk music and chanting that resembles both the Gregorian and the muezzin call to worship. It’s a fascinating mix that somehow works really well and highlights the two disparate and equally virtuosic vocalists.  Despite the language barrier it’s easy to absorb the themes of yearning, devotion, love, and valor, the basis of any great opera — or myth, for that matter.

In 2002, before Lila and Thoth had joined forces, filmmaker Sarah Kernochan made a documentary about Thoth that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Ms. Kernochan, who has written a number of screenplays and won two Oscars, spends her summers at her home in Edgartown.

Thoth and Ms. Kernochan have maintained a friendship ever since the making of the film. During the Skype interview, Thoth said, “We’re really good friends. We’ve kept in touch over the years and got closer in fact after the film.” Thoth explained that he has some issues around trust and added, “She’s one of my only friends.”

Ms. Kernochan discovered Thoth at his regular haunt, the vaulted Angel Tunnel in New York City’s Central Park. That is still the couple’s preferred street performance space. Tribal Baroque “prayforms” up to five times a week, although they try to do no more in order to give their much strained voices a break.

“We perform all over the world,” said Lila. “We just performed on the Royal Mile [in Edinburgh] for a couple of months. We went to Amsterdam and performed outdoors at the Rijksmuseum.” The couple arrives straight from an extended European tour when they appear here. After this show they will return to New York City.

Although they rarely perform by invitation, the members of Tribal Baroque are often approached during their informal shows and recruited to appear at venues or private parties. Joe Ashcroft and Mollie Whalen of Vineyard Haven chanced upon a performance in San Diego and arranged, through Wendy Taucher, to bring the couple to the Vineyard.

Interestingly, both Thoth and Lila’Angelique have Island connections. He visited the Island with his mother once while his mother was touring with the musical “Showboat.” He recalls having a small part in that show and even remembers his one line. Lila’s mother’s godfather was the late author William Styron, who spent summers here. She hopes to have the chance to meet Styron’s widow Rose, who she last saw when she was a child.

The Tribal Baroque show is sure to prove one of the more unusual events of the summer season. But, surprisingly, the group’s appeal seems to be universal as witnessed by the variety — from hipsters to Park Avenue matrons — among the spectators who tend to stick around enthralled by the duo’s street appearances.

Musicians and music lovers will enjoy the original compositions and virtuosity of the players. Others will appreciate the spectacle as much as the stories and the music.

Thoth and Lila will be on hand at a reception at the A Gallery in Oak Bluffs following the performance.

Tribal Baroque performance, Sunday, August 31, 6 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. $25; $20 general in advance; $50 front row in advance. Meet the Performers reception follows at A Gallery. For more information and tickets, visit wendytaucherdanceoperatheater.com or call 646-872-7249.