Silver Lake hepcats tend to throw around the word genius when describing W.A.C.O. front man Steve Gregoropoulos, if only because he resembles a mad professor, in his black coat and unruly hair, while conducting his equally unruly mini-orchestra with one hand and hammering out judgments on the piano with the other. It’s said that his previous group, the contrastingly electronic Wild Stares, was named after the manic, intense way Gregoropoulos looks at things that aren‘t there, like some tortured, fanatical saint. He’s a curmudgeonly romantic, a cynical utopian, a cultural nihilist and a devout contrarian who delights in saying unpredictable things just for the reaction. He‘s often forced to state, ”I’m not a genius“ — obviously the sign of a true genius.
This weekend, Gregoropoulos launches his most ambitious project yet, the debut of a ballet, The Selfish Giant, based on Oscar Wilde‘s allegorical tale of a Scrooge-like giant who builds a wall around his garden to keep out the bratty socialist kids who want to play for free on his property. Mother Nature punishes the giant by turning his garden into a wasteland, until he befriends a child who happens to have heavy connections. The Wild Acoustic Chamber Orchestra performs Gregoropoulos’ original music in two half-hour acts with intermission, accompanied by Marcel De Jure‘s giant puppet and 17 dancers led by choreographer Jane Paik.
”Jane was one of those people who are always talking about her work, and usually I don’t trust people who are always talking about their work,“ Gregoropoulos says. ”And then I went to see her do a performance at the Smell and then dance in a couple of musicals, Medea and The Joy of Gay Sex, and it was great and skillfully done. I had written this opera, and I was thinking about how hard it was to stage an opera when I went to see a performance of Cinderella at the Ahmanson a couple of years ago. I was watching the ballet, and I was thinking, ‘It’s difficult but not impossible to stage a ballet.‘ So I thought of Jane, and how ’The Selfish Giant‘ is the kind of children’s story with big gestures that would suit a ballet.
“Last year the Vatican newspaper had an article saying that they thought Oscar Wilde had found spiritual redemption in his final years. Isn‘t that ironic? Because he was supposedly the representative of decadence — but like many representatives of decadence, he was incredibly moralistic,” Gregoropoulos says. What did he make of the implied religious theme in Wilde’s fable, which has an O. Henry–type twist that involves a Christ-like child? “The story is optimistic, ultimately, about somebody finding redemption. I think it‘s mystical, like C.S. Lewis or William Blake. ’Tyger Tyger, burning bright in the forests of the night‘ — their symbolism was always based on a strange mystery, an exoticism. I tried to make my ballet otherworldly; there are themes of light and nature in it, and of ascent. The Christ-figure theme is somewhat dissonant, actually. It’s kind of sentimental. Maybe if it wasn‘t Oscar Wilde, it wouldn’t have the impact, like a sucker punch.”
The ballet‘s instrumental music is even more extended and intricate than the demanding marches and ponderous ballads W.A.C.O. recorded on their two vocal albums, Sylvania and Darling Clementine. “There’s nothing in the ballet that we haven‘t done in the song format, but it’s still a harder level of music,” he says. “It changes meter every measure, which is hard for the dancers, too. The themes — like the birds in the garden — are so well-established in the history of music that you want to avoid cliches.”
There‘s something defiantly unique and brand-new about the way Elizabeth Herndon’s and Jennifer Tefft‘s flutes circle like snow flurries above the sinister, seamless slithering of Rebecca Lynn’s violin and Heather Lockie‘s viola, buffeted by Dave Travis’ cello and Pablo Garcia‘s bass — then brought down to earth by the sullen snare slaps of drummer Kyle C. Kyle. The music constantly surprises and changes the closer you get to it physically. Stand here and you’ll marvel at acoustic guitarist Justin Burrill‘s subtle flourishes; stand over there and you’ll revel in Rebekah Greely‘s lonesome oboe melodies, playing off Elana Scherr’s bassoon.
Ever ambitious, W.A.C.O. also has another new CD ready for release in May. “A Game of Cards is our first pop record,” Gregoropoulos says. “It‘s W.A.C.O.-lite, whereas our last record, Sylvania, was the most severe thing we’ve ever made.” But what about that impossible-to-produce opera? “It‘s called Good Grief, with the libretto by Randy Horton. It’s about Charles Schulz dying and the Peanuts characters rebelling against God because they‘re wondering if they’re going to cease existing.”
W.A.C.O. performs The Selfish Giant at Le Conte Middle School, 1316 N. Bronson Ave., Hollywood, on Friday and Saturday, March 9 and 10, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, children and students $10. For more information, call (213) 483-1600.