Artist to Watch: May Arden Is Bringing Opera Back to the People

Vortex Music Magazine

Is opera unapproachable for modern audiences? May Arden believes she can make it not just relevant but irresistible as her notes "physically invade people. The sound gets into people’s bones. It catches them by surprise." Experience it yourself at The Dandy Warhols' Odditorium on December 29 with Freaks of the Sea and Seafox.

Photo by Marcus SwansonPhoto by Marcus SwansonGENRE: Operatic folk, trip-hop
ESSENTIAL TRACK: “Concrete Box”
FOR FANS OF: Tom Waits, Massive Attack, Björk

During May Arden’s show in eastern Oregon’s Sumpter, a motorcycle club stopped in the 200-person town and came into the venue. They were cowboys. They got drunk in the bar, laughed loudly, even called the music “ridiculous.” Eventually, they stumbled down and joined the audience.

Arden was performing her usual mix of opera and Americana. The bikers listened quietly. When the show ended, one of them beelined for Arden—an old, sea dog-looking type. His eyes were wet. He looked at her and said, “You broke me. You just broke me.”

This happens after every show: People line up and share similar reactions—her music sparked feelings they’d never felt before, or raised emotions they didn’t know they had. And each person, while in front of Arden, almost refuses to leave.

“There’s something about my song selection and the specific frequency of opera which physically invades people,” Arden says. “The sound gets into people’s bones. It catches them by surprise.”

May Arden at The Jennings Hotel in Joseph, Ore.: Photo by Brandon Scott HerrellMay Arden at The Jennings Hotel in Joseph, Ore.: Photo by Brandon Scott HerrellThey shouldn’t be too surprised. Opera’s creators believed that the human voice, when fully developed and combined with music, production and poetry, could transmit an inner emotional reality that would move listeners’ souls. In the centuries since, opera has been a most effective vehicle for penetrating the human psyche and causing deep emotional reactions.

Yet, when’s the last time you went to an opera? Tickets are hardly affordable, for one, but even if we went, many of us would have no idea what was happening (personally speaking, at least). That’s because opera has remained fixed in tradition, a distant spectacle in a fancy theater, and has never evolved for modern audiences. The subject matter is actually quite relatable; yet when it’s sung in antiquated language—or priced exorbitantly—it alienates itself from the everyday listener, specifically younger generations and the working class.

While Arden considers her shows opera—and she was trained by one of the best vocal coaches in the world—you’d have no idea you were at an opera show. “I’m trying to retain opera’s emotional essence and pitch it down onto acoustic guitar, where I can feel it,” she tells. Or, as she otherwise says: She’s bringing opera back to the people.

Arden, along with percussionist and soundscape designer Spencer Uhrig, crafts performances that combine pitched-down opera with original, beat-driven music on lo-fi drum machines and “prehistoric” synthesizers. Unlike traditional opera, her voice is amplified and often sung over both wet and dry microphones. The classical, penetrating operas of Wagner and Vivaldi are weaved within aggressive, contemporary folk songs, creating the environment for Arden’s voice to seep in and push our deepest buttons.

Opera is inherently dark. Most stories end in suicide, patricide, homicide, infanticide—“All the ’cides,” Arden jokes. Her original music presents this darkness in a modern context of strippers, cocaine addictions, family betrayal, and cheating partners. “I like to connect the emotion of opera with familiar issues. That way, I can make the feeling more accessible. Plus,” she adds, quoting one of her song’s lyrics, “‘Fuckin’ other bitches’ is way more relatable than tuberculosis.” (Listen below!)

May Arden at The Old Portland: Photo by Karen PrideMay Arden at The Old Portland: Photo by Karen PrideYet Arden’s shows aren’t dark at all. Similar to the cowboy biker in Sumpter, what happens is a sudden uncovering—an approximation of someone’s darkest feelings acknowledged in a way that brings relief, joy, a surge of release. “Everyone deals with darkness and it’s mostly unexpressed,” Arden says. “When another human being taps into that feeling artistically, it makes you feel accepted and heard. It creates this spontaneous, guttural euphoria.” She adds, “It’s a special form of human connection.”

MOST RECENT RELEASE: The Jennings Hotel, 1910 out now

Experience May Arden's invasive, operatic folk for yourself at The Dandy Warhols' Odditorium on Saturday, December 29 when she plays Right Now: A Benefit Concert in Honor of Alex Agan with Freaks of the Sea, Seafox and DJ Rescue (aka The Dandys' Zia McCabe).

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