Greek tragedy becomes rock opera in Kilbanes’ ‘Weightless’
By Lou Fancher
Approaching a tiny garage in Oakland on the Berkeley border, there’s a child’s trike, a sandbox, outdoor toys in bright, primary hues and rows of muddy, toddler-sized footwear. Birds chirp. A visitor to the backyard studio of The Kilbanes, an Oakland-based theatrical rock band led by songwriting duo guitarist/vocalist Kate Kilbane and keyboard player/vocalist Dan Moses, would never guess what’s happening inside the soundproofed structure.
It’s a rehearsal in midstream. “You might want headphones,” says Texas native Kilbane, setting aside her electric bass, “the drums get pretty loud.” Her husband and co-parent of Hazel Moses, the couples’ cherubic 2-year old, adjusts settings on a headset for maximum acoustic experience.
The band that has moved from “experiment” to become a rock-your-socks-off bedrock on the Bay Area music scene is preparing for a world premiere: “Weightless,” a rock opera debuting Feb. 23 at San Francisco’s Z Space performance complex.
The work is an adaptation of a tale told in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The 15-book, myth-filled work includes the story of two sisters, Procne and Philomela. “Weightless” chronicles their separation, epic suffering at the hands of a malevolent god and efforts to reunite.
It’s not the first venture into ancient mythology for Kilbane and Moses, who doubles as a sound engineer and instrument designer. Their first rock opera, “The Medea Cycle,” combined 12 powerful tunes with Kilbane’s spoken narrative bursts telling the sacrificial story of Euripides’ “Medea.” In “Weightless,” a cast of six directed by Becca Wolff includes Kilbane, Moses, Dan Harris (drums), Lila Blue (vocals), Josh Pollock (vocals/electric guitar) and actor Julia Brothers.
After more than four years developing the opera from a 2012 concert version, rehearsals prior to opening are all about refinements: the balance of the instrumentation — otherworldly keyboard, drum, vocal and guitar solos. Throughout, organic, flowing lyrics and colorful harmonies loop, leading a first-time audience to believe its possible to sing along. Solid musicianship grounds every moment.
Kilbane’s childhood soundtrack was musical theater, Appalachian and Irish folk songs, English Medieval music and classical violin lessons. Berkeley native Moses had his ear on Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles. “I’m a music nerd,” says Moses, whose playlist expanded in later years to include jazz. “Chord progressions were a world I wanted to know,” he says.
Kilbane loves theater and says opera — “confessing your story through song directly to the audience” — really transcends genre. “There’s no grand, mythical story in getting coffee —but there is in giving birth, killing each other, saving the world, falling in love, fate and choice. As a 21st-century person removed from someone who lived in 20 A.D., I realize nothing has changed. A relationship between two women, how friendship can ride a wave of growth, is the central bond and love story in this piece.”
Moses says that eight months of kitchen table meetings with director Wolff resulted in theatrical clarity. “She helped us think through elements. I felt I was walking through a cloud. She’d listen, give notes. Becca’s creating an entire visual world for ‘Weightless.’”
After considering seating in-the-round, a V-shaped riser configuration was selected to create intimacy. “I think of it as a boat,” says Kilbane. Abandoning an elevated music stand eliminates the “radio show” barrier. If she had her way, Kilbane would stand four feet from each person as she does in the garage studio. The venue says the setting is meant to re-create a small rock club.
Asked why the term “opera” applies to the work, Moses says the story “let’s us feel all the feelings larger than life” while quiet, provocative moments provide opera-sized reflections on the human experience. Kilbane points to the tight scoring and a cinematic approach that allows her to be “vocally small, but have big impact.”
About collaborating with a spouse, Kilbane says she’s learned to better define her needs. “I’ve learned to say ahead of time, “I just need to hear celebration.” Or, I say, “I like some parts and don’t like some other parts. I need feedback from you now.” I’ve gotten savvy-er about that.” For Moses, it’s trust and integrity. Creating and sharing the work with Kilbane and the band, he says strong opinions are valued. “One of the goals of a good band is to play into the strengths of each member. We challenge each other. Letting people’s personalities come out is where things take off.”