If you strolled down center city Philadelphia this past Saturday, you would have witnessed a pop-up piano garden, some interesting bikes, or a majestic waterfall surrounded by tree-like stilt walkers elegantly brushing (pun intended) their branchy limbs through a swarm of people. Packed with art installations that were confusing to most but appreciated by all, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts hosted its annual Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA).
PIFA is a 16-day celebration showcasing local and international art. From a realistic forest made of clay trees to trampoline acrobats, it was mentally overstimulating to say the least. But of all the performances and artwork, Squonk Opera (“Squonk”, “Squonkers” etc.) easily won as the most interesting. Upon reading the list of events featured at the street fair, this quickly became a top priority for me. I later learned, it was more of an experience than just an easy-listening outdoor band. Their presentation of whom they refer to as “Lady Pneumatica”, a 40-foot tall inflatable accordion sculpture of a woman that plays music, was hard to turn away from. But how did this band create such a whimsical concept? And where do we even begin on trying to interpret its creative chaos?
It all started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Formed in 1992, Squonk Opera has performed in over 250 venues in the U.S. and has taken tours overseas to Scotland, Belgium, Germany, and South Korea. It isn’t just a few band members getting together outside their full time jobs to make music. Squonk includes a graphic designer, a staging director, a painter and sculptor among others. Even though the band was created by two of its members Steve O’Hearn and Jackie Dempsey, each person creatively contributes to their production concepts. According to Dempsey, the group “like to think of ourselves as a wacky, provincial opera company.”
Their 12 thematic performances cover various topics such as recycling, the steel industry, along with re-tellings of myths and other classic films. The focus of this performance? Air. “Lady Pneumatica” is an event about air, made by air and most importantly, powered by air. Imagine those air dancers used to advertise car dealerships. Now times that single air dancer by 20. Now take a war boy from Immortan Joe’s army in Mad Max and combine him with a member of the Blue Man Group. Now mix it all up in your head and add a large, pale blue lady statue. This should give you a clearer picture of Squonk’s representation of air.
As I approached the stage, I was blown away by the artistic effects and the amount of production elements used. As a few of my friends urged me to follow them away from the performance, I was too intrigued to look away. It mesmerizes…almost hypnotizes you. A slow chord progression to the long-awaited and highly anticipated climax was almost tangible.
There has been much written on Squonk Opera’s “America’s Got Talent” appearances. Not everyone is a fan of their eccentric setup. But it’s not meant to be the best concert you have ever attended. It’s suppose to make you think of the performance’s concept on a larger scale. It’s suppose to make you curious.
If any of this piques your interest, you can catch Squonk Opera on their 2016 tour.