Squonk Opera

Internationally Recognized New Age Performance Art Troupe
“A Squonk Opera show is an eye-popping visual and auditory smorgasbord that pokes fun at our culture.“ 

"It's New Age with a dark side, and it slinks under your skin whether you want it to or not." -Ben Brantley New York Times

Squonk Opera is an avante-garde new age multi-media performance troupe that has been entertaining audiences around the world for over twenty years from the stages of Broadway, national television, theaters, concert halls, and art festivals. Squonk Opera’s wacky productions present new age music, modern dance, singing, and physical comedy played by wildly costumed characters against elaborate visual art sets and with audience interaction. Their hallucinogenic stew mixes elements of Twyla Tharp, Laurie Anderson, Blue Man Group, Riverdance, Enya, Julie Taymor, and Monty Python.  Critics have hailed Squonk Opera as "gloriously eccentric", the “Rust Belt dada” and “Debussy meets Godzilla,”  Squonk Opera has created eleven original productions with ever changing themes including Squonk, Inferno, Night of the Living Dead, Rodeo Smack Down, Astro-Rama, and Mayhemd and Majesty, 

Squonk Opera came to national attention with their off Broadway show "Squonk subtitled "Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk" in 2000, that New York Times critic Ben Brantley called “ingenious, hallucinatory, hypnotic”.  Moving the show to Broadway it won an American Theater Wing design award.  Since their first international tour in 2003 they have appeared in Scotland, Belgium, Germany and South Korea. The documentary film “Squonkumentary” by Peggy Sutton premiered in 2005. The Squonkers were seen by 14 million viewers on national television in 2011 when they were invited by the producers to compete in season six of the NBC show America’s Got Talent. Squonk Opera has released 12 CDs of music from their original productions. Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk, their first album was released on Capital Records Angel label and received airplay on 80 radio stations. 

Their mission to bring performance art to the masses has been funded by grants and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Jim Henson Foundation. the Heinz Endowments, Buhl Foundation, Grable Foundation, Pittsburgh Foundation, Anonymous and others. They have taught workshops, directed collaborative creations, and done residencies at over sixty universities, middle schools and museums across the United States.

Squonk History -Bringing Art to Life Through Music

Steve O’hearn, a visual artist and classically trained pianist and flutist who had worked in experimental theater, conceived the idea of a visual arts music performance group. Steve earned a fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design and Master of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. His art works were published in magazines and coffee table books and shown at international exhibitions. He also designed multimedia sets for several theater productions. Bored with just creating static paintings and sculptures he dreamed of bringing his creations to life in performances. He recruited actress and singer Kate Aronson to join him forming a performance art duo. Kate was a professor of drama at Point Park University who had acted in theaters from Los Angeles to New York and was experienced in street theater. They did two shows as a duo in 1992 wearing goofy costumes with Steve playing the flute and Kate singing. 

Jackie Dempsey, a pianist composer and University of Pittsburgh music professor, saw Steve and Kate perform at a club. Liking their concept Jackie asked to join the madcap ensemble. She wanted to incorporate her original music to make their shows more exciting. Steve and Kate welcomed Demsey into the act anointing her keyboardist and “The Kapellmeister” aka music director.

Jackie Dempsey, who grew up in Plum Township outside of Pittsburgh was born into a musical family. Her farther Jack Demsey led a zoot suited ducktail quaffed swing dance band call Jack Dempsey and the Pastels. Jackie began playing piano at age 8 going on to earn an undergraduate music degree at the University of Pittsburgh and a master's degree in Music Theory and Composition from Washington University in St. Louis. While attending music school she earned four performance merit awards. Dempsey applied her education, talent, and creativity to compose music for dance companies, experimental theater groups, soloists and chamber groups. She was working as piano instructor at the University of Pittsburgh when she joined with O’Hearn and Aaronson on their creative adventure.

What the Hell is Squonk Opera?

Seeking grant money to fund their ensemble’s productions Steve and Kate made a trip to Philadelphia. There they saw a colorful post advertising a Chine Opera company and were inspired. Steve realized that his ensemble was like a Chinese Opera company. With its relaxed atmosphere Chinese Opera is much less formal than European Opera. A Chinese opera is like a sporting event where the crowd boos the bad guys and cheers on the good guys. The actors fart and belch while the crowd chomps on hot dogs. It much more zany and fun than the European version. Steve wanted his shows to be fun like a Chinese Opera. To emphasize the fun he added the name Squonk, as in the playful sound of a saxophone, to arrive at the memorable name "Squonk Opera".

From the Pierogi Palace to Broadway

Squonk Opera with Ohearn, Aronson, and Dempsey made its debut performance at a pierogi palace,the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, in 1993. They opened for Carl Mullen's Irish folk band Ploughman's Lunch.  Wearing costumes, using artful props, and exercising their humor they captured the crowd's attention  They laughed as Kate ridiculously pulled silverware out of her chest.  Proving their likability they performed regularly in clubs in the fall of 1993 and started touring in 1994.

First Performance Art Show

Squonk Opera performed their first full length theatrical show “Forgotten Works” at the Keystone Iron & Metal scrap metal yard in 1995.  It was a combination art performance and monster truck show.  Pirouetting industrial cranes moved to the music, stacks of squashed demolished cars were used as mini-stages, metal shearers were played for musical accompaniment, and the pianist in a played in a dump truck.  The show dealt with consumption, waste and recycling. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette called it “a one-time only extravaganza of post-industrial nostalgia, gruesome caution and infectious high jinks” 

Commissioned Shows 1995 to 1998

After the success of "Forgotten Works" Squonk Opera received two commissions from the Pittsburgh City Theater to stage two productions: The first was Night of the Living Dead a live action performance of the Night of the Living Dead zombie movie in September of 1995.  In January of 1996 vocalist and founding member Kate Aronson quit Squonk Opera without notice.

The second commission show was "Firedogs" in 1996 that relived the grandeur that once was Pittsburgh’s steel industry extolling the wonders of smelting and slag. It featured the characters Bessie the Bessemer Furnace, Furnace Man, and Old Man Steel the slab of steel  narrator. Jane Losey was the vocalist for this production.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust commissioned Squonk Opera to write and perform their show The Great Circle Route at the Byham Theatre in April of 1998,  Subtitled the “Underwaster Opera” it was nautical journey to the depths of insanity and back.

National Attention and Tours

Squonk opera came to national attention in August of 1998 with their Off Broadway show called ''Squonk'' staged at Performance Space 122 in New York's East Village.   New York Times critic Bill Brantely raved about the production.  His wrote it "was like walking into a neighbor's garage and discovering a homemade fun house....It was a funky, friendly and somewhat precious experience, a chemical-free New Age-style head trip." Subtitled "Bigsmörgåsbørdwünderwerk" Squonk was a surreal tour through the "restaurant kitchen of the mind", in a mix of horror and fantasy.  It captured a mood and audience similar to the Off Broadway shows of ''Stomp,'' ''Blue Man Group,'' and ''De La Guarda'' 

"Squonk" moved to Broadway in 2000 to perform at the Helen Hayes Theatre.  The close audience interaction of the small Off Broadway setting was lost in the large Broadway theater.  The show closed after a short run, but Squonk Opera earned a national recording contract and took their show on tour to 41 cities across the United States and to Asia, several cities in Belgium, and Scotland.

Touring Shows

Squonk Opera returned with the production "Inferno" in 2001 that was a tale of a the Centralia, Pennsylvania mine fire based on Dante's Divine Comedy.  Commission by the Pittsburgh Public Theater the show featured revolutionary projection puppets and cast of seven musicians.  It was performed in Philadelphia, Palo Alto, a, Frederick Ma, Scranton, Pa, Malvern, Pa, Big Rapids, Michigan, and the Rex and City Theaters in Pittsburgh with Jody Abbott on vocals..

Rodeo Smack Down as Squonk Opera's 2004 production. It was a retelling of the minotaur myth.
set in a maze of of cowboys, oilmen and rodeo queens. The show was performed at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, the Charity-Randall Theater in Pittsburgh, PA, and at Pittsburgh's Byham Theater with Christina Acosta as the vocalist.

Singer Autumn Ayers joined Squonk Opera as the vocalist for the production Your Hometown Opera in 2006 and Astro-Ramia in 2008. Your Hometown Opera is show that was customized to each town that it was performed in using local talent, video-taped and projected interviews, and a host of local references.  It was performed in about 20 cities.  In Astro-Rama Squonk sends a message to the cosmos from a 40' radio telescope dish mounted to scaffold towers, and tuned to the galactic frequency of B-flat. They send a proud message from our species to outer space.

Current Shows

The Mayhem & Majesty  premiered in the Spring of , 2010.   The sonic hooligans of Squonk Opera push the boundaries of musical athleticism and visual wizardry, while asking the question…“What does music look like?”  The show has been performed in 14 cities.

To perform at outdoor art festivals the Squonk Opera hs build a show that is performed on a large flatbed truch GO Roadshow is “a musical street spectacle on wheels”. This show-making machine is a 34-foot long monster truck retrofitted with truck-horn calliope, a wall made of rotors and a spinning grand piano that is played while it wheels around! Each show starts with a shameless parade of peacock trumpets, spinning drums, accordion, sousaphone and glockenspiel.  The show has been performed in Baltimore ten others cities in 2012 and 2013.

The line-up of Squonk Opera musicians has changed several times over the years.  The current line-up includes Vocalist Anna Elder, electric guitarist David Wallace, drummer, Kevin Kornicki, Nathan Wilson on on bass and Sousaphone along with founders Jackie Dempies on piano and Steve O'Hearn on flute and sax
Nathan Wilson.
Squonk Opera Music
Astro-Rama - The Message
Go Roadshow