Opera-rock fusion

It isn't every concert that offers such selections as "Non T'Amo Piu" and "Lucky in Love," or one where "Because of You" is followed by "Pagliacci."

Those are some of the songs that will fill the Burgdorff Cultural Center in Maplewood on Friday night, courtesy of Alexander Kariotis and the Rock Opera Orchestra.

"Rock opera" conjures images and sounds of The Who's "Tommy" or Pink Floyd's "The Wall." That's not, however, what songwriter Kariotis has written. He'll offer 12 songs that incorporate elements of rock and opera, mix Italian and English, and forge a new sound. Sections of Puccini, Massenet and Leoncavallo arias will be fused with sheer Kariotis.

He'll sing, switch between piano and guitar, and will be backed up by an 11-piece band and three backing singers. In the latter group is Aimee Willis, to whom Kariotis has been married for 14 years. They live in Maplewood with their three children. "So this is an ideal and convenient spot to break in the show before we go to New York," he says.

Kariotis is enthusiastic about both musical forms, though he was interested in rock long before he became acquainted with opera.

It started when his 20-year-old brother Tony formed a rock group called Gambler. Tony would leave the Kariotis home in Elmhurst, Ill., and play in surrounding states. Alexander admits that he, as a 13-year-old, had a great deal of hero worship for his brother, who has great affection for him, too. "My brother was really my father, even when my father was still around -- before he ran off with my piano teacher." He shrugs at the thought that he lost both at the same time. "She wasn't that good a piano teacher," he says.

Tony suggested that Alexander come along and play back-up on some gigs. Alexander says his brother did rock¤'n' roll, but not the rampant sex and drugs associated with the music. "He was just into the music, wanting to get his songs out there, recorded by himself and other people, too," Kariotis says.

Yet, when Kariotis was a senior in high school, his brother took him aside. Recalls Alexander, "He said, 'Your voice is different from mine, something prettier, with more talent than there is in mine. Let me be the rock guy, and you sing something like the guy I'll take you to see tonight.'"

"The guy" was Luciano Pavarotti, and the concert rocked Alexander's world. He would eventually train to be an opera singer at Western Illinois University, the Mannes College of Music, UCLA and Northwestern. Then he headed to Berlin, where he played such roles as Nemorino in "The Elixir of Love," Cavaradossi in "Tosca," and Rudolfo in "La Boheme." That he also met Willis in Germany added to the excitement.

Soon after they were married, disaster struck both of them. "We were in great places in our careers, but then Aimee's brother-in-law got AIDS, and Tony got Lou Gehrig's Disease. So we came home."

He pauses, looks down, then up again. "He died 11 years ago this month. Just a few days before he died, I broke down, saying I didn't want him to go, how I wouldn't know what to do with my life. And he said, 'The cool thing about dying is that now I'll get to hang out with a lot of great rock n' rollers. I'll get to talk to John Lennon -- and I'll get to watch over you."

That's why on Friday night, Kariotis will sing a song he wrote called, "Lennon in Heaven."

Peter Filichia, The Star Ledger
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