The Waitress on the Ukulele: A Short History of the Folk Opera

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“To me folk music is about storytelling, and opera is about storytelling, so there’s no contradiction at all.”

Books sit in haphazard piles on the floor of Adobe Bookstore, providing a cozy scene for five performers who don vintage hats and pluck the humming strings of an upright bass, a violin, and a ukulele. With their casual dress and folksy serenades, the band resembles any number of old-timey or Americana bands performing in coffee shops across the country. But these musicians, led by singer/songwriter Annie Bacon, have a unique approach to the intersection of song and storytelling. They perform a “folk opera,” a series of songs written by Bacon that all connect and narrate one dramatic story, much as an opera or a musical would.

Bacon’s Folk Opera resembles ordinary life coming into itself as music. The narrative follows the interactions of women who have found themselves in a bleakly mundane town. Yet towards the end of Folk Opera, the protagonist Elizabeth realizes: “This stop was to pass the time, now its time has stopped me.” On this particular night, the audience watching Folk Opera seems to agree; they sit transfixed at the end of the performance. What may have just been a “stop” in a line of events for their evening has held them all in a state of awe. They’ve witnessed a relaxed, seemingly amateur gathering of singers suddenly blossom into a complex fabric of interpersonal and musical articulation.

The folk opera, a form that is gaining momentum amongst indie-folk musicians, is laden with contradictions and, as a subgenre, still seems slightly nebulous. Perched in a space between the rustic leaves of folk culture and the proper limbs of the operatic tradition, folk operas exist under the radar in many cases. They do not appear on the TV screen nor do they boast glossy MTV ads. Folk operas are the grassroots version of musicals, the bluegrass cousins of moody rock operas like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. At any given time, the folk operas I have seen resembled plays, ditties, improv routines, fully-fledged operas, ballads, circuses, and theatrical spectacles.

Taken separately, folk and opera seem to lie on opposite ends of the musical spectrum. But if Bacon’s piece, with Folk Opera as a temporary title, is any indicator, the folk opera can meld divergent musical traditions and narratives into a potent formula of fluid storytelling, rooted artistry and emotional charge. With musicians such as Colin Meloy from The Decemberists and singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell also creating captivating versions, the folk opera can proudly claim to have enticed artists well within the reach of music trend arbiters like Pitchfork or Pandora.

Though still under the national radar herself, Annie Bacon has made small splashes in the California music scene. Based in San Francisco, Bacon writes and performs her own indie rock music along with what she calls her O-SHEN, a rotating mélange of musicians who accompany her. A year ago she came across the ukulele at a friend’s house and became smitten with the petite instrument. At the time, she was preparing for a longer trip to the United Arab Emirates and South Africa, and she wanted to take advantage of the chance for creativity the trip could provide.

“A week or two before I left I just all the sudden decided I was going to write a folk opera–I have no idea why, it just popped into my head,” Bacon remembers. Not that she had a very sturdy concept of what that meant. “I had no idea what a folk opera was,” she admits. “There’s no easy defined form of it.”

Armed with her guitar, the new ukulele and the persistent feeling that an important musical piece was in the works, Bacon set off for her six-week trip. And as if by magic, the folk opera appeared. She stayed up late on the trip to journal about characters, cut and paste snippets of her past and her imagination and combine them into a narrative about two travelers who get stuck in a small town in New England. Even with all the extra work, she insists that some of the opera’s success was beyond her control. “It was more like finding it rather than making it,” she says about the creation of Folk Opera. “I would wake up from deep sleeps with songs on my lips, and the characters whispered their stories in my ear as I experimented with sounds and lyrics.” Her subconscious seemed to direct her storytelling.

By the time she got back to the States, Bacon had almost completed her nascent piece and felt ready to put her experiment to the test. She booked a show at SoCha Café on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Mission District and completed Folk Opera’s last song minutes before dashing off to perform it for the first time. Since performing at SoCha Café, Bacon has performed Folk Opera on stages around San Francisco, in her own home (know as “The Tower”), and at the FAR West Regional Folk Alliance in Irvine, CA.

Folk Opera tells of Elizabeth, a caretaker in her twenties in charge of Aunt Sara, an ornery old bird afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Their car breaks down, and in one short afternoon their fates become enveloped in the entrenched personalities and histories of a small town. Tragedy ensues, but not before love can enter the scene, strangers have a chance to win each other over, small town antics abound, and Rita the waitress serves her coffee. And while death sits at the doorstep of this short tale, the fact that Bacon composed the entire opera on her ukulele lends a lighthearted tone to the whole affair.

“I tend towards really intense, so the last half of the opera is really sad,” admits Bacon. “But it’s on the ukulele, so it just kind of balances it a little bit so you don’t end up diving into this pit of despair…you’re not bulldozed away.”

Folk Opera, though entirely written and directed by Bacon, soars with the talent and energy of all of its performers. Elizabeth Greenblatt mesmerizes with her pure and pitch-perfect vocals as she sings the part of Elizabeth, and she and Bacon combine to offer harmonies that rise and seem to stay suspended above the audience long after their lips have closed. Joel Dean, who sings the part of “Old Man” Benjamin Defaunt, surprises viewers with a voice so rich and refined it appears to be generated from a much larger and older man.

Though we sometimes lose her vocals, Savannah Jo Lack imbues her fiddle playing with compelling emotion. Holding the whole piece together on upright bass, Joe Lewis provides more than just a regular beat. “He’s so solid,” affirms Bacon. “He worked with the charts for maybe two rehearsals and had the whole thing memorized. And he didn’t just show up and say OK, I’ll just play whatever you want me to play, he was really interested in the songs rhythmically.”

The folk opera “is ultimately is an extended version of what every folk song is,” muses Bacon. “The idea was definitely to take the whole idea of folk music and just make it bigger, longer.” Watching the show is falling deep into the world of a song and getting to hang out there, see what happens, follow the characters along for a ride. Many folk songs target the lives and tribulations of everyday people, and the folk opera relishes in the extended time it is given to do so. Musical themes are looped, lyrics enter again, feelings and subtexts are allowed to stew and resonate. The slow build of an extended piece provides more chance for a cathartic potency. “The last show the drummer who was going on after us came up to me and he was just weeping and crying,” remembers Bacon. “I didn’t expect that.”


Maddie Oatman has interviewed musicians and writers for The Rumpus. She's the research editor at Mother Jones, where she also writes. A Boulder transplant, she can often be found on her bike, skis, or cooking with vegetables, and she wrote her English thesis on a gay red-winged monster and Billy the Kid. Follow her on Twitter or read occasional musings on her blog Oats. More from this author →