'Guns n' Rosenkavalier' gives new meaning to 'rock opera'

Baritone Andrew Wilkowske performs in his rock-opera extravaganza, 'Guns n' Rosenkavalier.'Provided

October 13, 2021

At the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, a singer is speaking to the audience, electric guitar slung over his shoulder.

"And now we're going to play ‘Winterreise’ for you," he says, referring to Franz Schubert's iconic song cycle, a masterwork of classical music.

The pianist picks out the broody introduction to the opening song. But when the singer enters, it's not the words of Schubert's original that he uses.

Guns n' Rosenkavalier

"I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind," is what comes out, in the voice of a mellifluous operatic baritone.

The audience twigs immediately and responds with whoops of laughter. The lyrics are those of the hit single "Crazy," by American soul duo Gnarls Barkley, superimposed on Schubert's doleful melody.

What is happening here? Have we just entered an alternative musical universe?

The short answer is yes. The flip-and-switch from one musical genre to another is typical of Guns n' Rosenkavalier, a zanily original show conceived by St. Paul-based baritone Andrew Wilkowske. It plays Saturday at the historic Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing.

The show's title — a cut-and-shut combination of the American rock band Guns n' Roses and Richard Strauss' best-known opera — encapsulates Wilkowske's aim of grafting bits of the classical music he sings for a living on to chunks of rock ‘n’ roll from mainstream popular culture.

For some, it's an incongruous combination. For Wilkowske, though, the two flow into one another more easily than you might imagine.

"There's a lot of overlap between hard rock or heavy metal and classical music, especially with artists like Van Halen or Metallica," he says.

"If you listen to Mozart or Handel operas, there's these big runs in the voice that are just like a guitarist shredding, and the big power riffs are similar to the sweeping chord progressions you get in some Schubert songs."

Wilkowske's love affair with rock began as a teenager in Wilmer, where he also took piano lessons and sang in a choir.

"But when I started playing guitar," he says, "I immediately thought ‘Oh', man, I want to be a rock star; I want to be Eddie Van Halen.’"

Vestiges of the teenage wannabe resurface in Guns n' Rosenkavalier, in which Wilkowske is as likely to peel off a stinging guitar lick as he is to float an ineffably beautiful melody by Brahms.

But because "Eddie Van Halen already existed," as Wilkowske puts it, he eventually took the more conventional option of a college course in music education, thinking he would maybe become a teacher.

Then, quite by chance, his inner opera voice came calling.

"One of my teachers at the University of Minnesota-Duluth heard something in my singing, and said I should take his opera workshop class. And I thought, ‘Why would I ever do that?’"

He did it, though, and since then he has never looked back as an opera singer, with appearances in major roles across America, including many at Minnesota Opera.

Along the way, however, the itch to occasionally rock ‘n’ roll a little never died.

To scratch it, Wilkowske and composer friend John Glover conceived the idea of the Guns n' Rosenkavalier stage show, where rock and classical mesh, sometimes surreally, together.

The first show was at Milwaukee Opera Theatre in 2013. From the outset, Wilkowske says, audiences loved the quirky juxtapositions he was making between jewels of the classical repertoire and the type of popular power ballads you might play air guitar to in a private moment.

"Audiences don't always get the exact references to which songs I'm playing on either the rock or classical side, but they don't need to," he says. "What they're mainly responding to is that the evening is joyful and a celebration of what we love about all music. I think people latch on to that, because it's a reminder that music is supposed to be fun."

One good example of the Wilkowske alchemy at work is his ingenious yoking-together of the English rock band the Smiths' "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" with "À Chloris," a song by the French classical composer Reynaldo Hahn.

"The Hahn song is in the same key as ‘Please, Please, Please’ and has the same kind of melancholic feel to it," he says. "It's one of my favorite parts of the whole concert."

Elsewhere in a typical Guns N' Rosenkavalier set list you might find a mashup of Van Halen's "Panama" with Schubert's "Erlkönig" or Wilkowske ripping into Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" with the stentorian timbre of a Verdi baritone.

For Wilkowske, it's essentially all one.

"There's nothing more operatic, quite frankly, than rock music," he says. "It's so over the top and flamboyant, and you've got makeup and hair and pyrotechnics. It is complete melodrama at its highest."

For Saturday's Guns N' Rosenkavalier show in Red Wing, he will be joined on stage by fellow Twin Cities musicians KrisAnne Weiss (mezzo-soprano) and Lara Bolton (piano).

He anticipates there will be a special feeling of expectancy in the air, as he and his fellow performers emerge from a stifling period of COVID isolation.

"This is the first time we've done the whole show live since the pandemic started," he says. "For me, it's a thrill beyond measure, and we think people will particularly enjoy seeing the show in the Sheldon, which is such a beautiful theater."

Guns n' Rosenkavalier 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16; Sheldon Theatre, Red Wing