Arts & Entertainment, Features

Berklee’s heavy metal opera swaps tux tails for death wails

Ava Gaudet will star in Queen Boudicca: A Metal Opera Saturday at the Berklee Performance Center. PHOTO COURTESY OF AVA GAUDET
Ava Gaudet will star in Queen Boudicca: A Metal Opera Saturday at the Berklee Performance Center. PHOTO COURTESY OF AVA GAUDET

For the first time in centuries, the Celtic Carnyx War trumpet will sound from the stage of the Berklee Performance Center on Saturday. Featured in Berklee College of Music’s opera about little-known Celtic Queen Boudicca, the 6-foot tall instrument is only one of many elements that make this production unique.

Head bangers, get ready. The story of Queen Boudicca will be told to the tune of heavy metal. “Queen Boudicca: A Metal Opera” may be the first show of its kind, according to the lead actress, Ava Gaudet.

Composed by Gaudet’s father and Berklee professor Robert Schlink, the opera will feature a metal band along with metal and traditional vocalists, string and woodwind instruments and the Crepusculum choir, a Berklee student chamber choir. For Schlink, the show is a real family affair. His son also composed, his wife directed and his son-in-law is working with some technical aspects of the performance.

Boudicca’s heroic story, however, is not very well known today. Leader of the Celtic Iceni tribe, Boudicca led her people in a revolt against Roman Empire’s occupation only to suffer a violent defeat. Schlink had never even heard of her tale until watching it on a History Channel documentary. At first, he only wrote a few songs about Boudicca for a project with his son, but he kept coming back to the concept.

“I said to myself, ‘man this is a great story,’” Schlink said. “After a while, I almost felt obligated to tell it.”

Metal was the perfect medium for Schlink. With its aggressive vocals and guitars, metal expresses things that are not easily expressed in other kinds of styles, he said.

“The fact is that those people lived with a level of violence that is unimaginable to us,” Schlink said. “I thought that brutality of metal was very apropos to the subject.”

However, Schlink said his production is not just a marathon of unrelenting death metal. The opera also has rock ballads and choral pieces to express some of the sadder parts of the story. Schlink said he pulled from Celtic tradition when composing songs. According to his research, women of the Iceni tribe would sing people into the afterlife as they were dying. In a piece without words, performers will be “keening,” or wailing in overwhelming grief, during “Queen Boudicca.”

“I wanted to get across that all styles are equally adept at doing some aspect of dramatic or artistic expression, including screaming and growling and playing really loud like a metal band,” Schlink said.

For Gaudet, whose credits include appearances on Broadway as Mimi and Maureen in “Rent,” and on television in “Ugly Betty” and “Mike and Molly,” this is her first time performing heavy metal.

“Metal is really passionate. It’s really dramatic, in some ways, in good ways,” she said. “For me, it was just getting myself acclimated to the style.”

Portraying Boudicca and studying her character was also fun and inspiring, Gaudet said. Though Boudicca was a queen and war hero, she was also just a normal woman fighting for her people.

“How would you do that as a normal person?” Gaudet asked. “We’re human beings and when something crazy comes up, you find that part of you. You find that thing inside of you that lets you be that hero.”

But in a way, Schlink’s stylistically eclectic opera tells a story larger than Boudicca’s.

“Musicians do this throughout the centuries,” Schlink said. “We take the style we know and are familiar with and we tell our history. Every song does this.”

Schlink and Gaudet also hope the opera will reach out to all audiences — even those who might be turned off by the volume.

“Metal students are doing a lot of good things,” Schlink said. “But a lot of people aren’t noticing because they don’t like the style.”

“Queen Boudicca” might change people’s minds, though, Gaudet said.

“You just have a newfound appreciation for how compelling it is,” she said, “and how it makes you feel something.”

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  1. Schlinks Rule! (and rock) Good Luck.

  2. Awful – this was not just bad, but vexingly bad. Bad acting, largely bad singing, and bad pseudo death metal. I mean, the guttural moan singing thing has its place – but even death metal bands will give it a rest.

    The allergy to melody was brutal, as was the insistence on cacophony and minor key progressions buttressing some indiscipherable lyric or other.

    Creativity and daring are to be praised – but this is bad through and through.