Off the Beaten Track: Zachary James’ ‘CALL OUT’ – A Wild Trip with a Literary Bent

By Chris Ruel

Off the Beaten Track is an album review series that takes readers on a cross-disciplinary journey through recently released recordings, spotlighting the cool, the unusual, and the beautiful work created by artists who push boundaries and take the road less traveled.

What was Zachary James thinking?

Amid a raging pandemic, the star of stage and screen embarked on a wild, exhausting four-month-long intensive project to produce “CALL OUT,” a visual album that takes the audience on a trip into the bass-baritone’s imagination.

So, to my original question? What was he thinking? He wasn’t thinking outside the box, that’s for certain. No, he broke the box down and put it out to the curb for recycling.

James had a complete program planned for Carnegie Hall before COVID. The program included the pieces found on “CALL OUT,” all of which showcase the work of women composers. But he didn’t want the prep and the visibility the composers would receive to be a COVID casualty.

Like so many performers, the need for an outlet led him to increasingly creative projects. “CALL OUT” is the vehicle that brings the canceled event to audiences around the world in a novel way; one that uses video to amplify the music, aka music videos.

Video Raised the Opera Star

To prepare for this installment, I spoke with James and learned that as a kid he anxiously awaited the release of music videos. He is part of the MTV generation afterall. The first music video aired on MTV was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Now it seems the medium can enliven the opera-crossover star. To date, “CALL OUT” has received multiple awards, international film festival selections, and gushes of praise from the music press. The lasting effects on the industry, reeling from the devastation of the pandemic, could be profound as more artists follow, unafraid of the repercussions.

A refrain I’ve heard in conversations with singers wanting to move in new directions is that the opera powers-that-be frown upon non-opera-related pursuits: singers are to remain within the established guardrails of operatic performance. Should a vocalist decide to veer from the prescribed route, the career risk is real; you’re all-in with opera or you’re not. And, if you’re not, well, there’s someone just outside the door who is.

The pandemic has freed artists to experiment and expand. It’s not just the opera companies and orchestras looking for alternative ways to keep audiences engaged, the singers and instrumentalists are, too.

James was well-positioned to capitalize on his breadth of musical and acting experience. He’s done solid turns on Broadway, including originating the role of Lurch in “The Addams Family;” he’s appeared on television in “Murphy Brown,” “30 Rock;” he does cabaret, appearing as Wotan in “Das Rhinestone” wearing a bedazzled eye patch, and now he has “CALL OUT.”

Make no mistake, whether Carnegie, cabaret, or utterly fascinating projects such as a visual album, James loves opera, and, based on his repertoire, he has a penchant for new opera and new music, which jibes with “CALL OUT.” His passion to produce interesting art also reflects his commitment to lifting classical music’s underrepresented communities.

James joins other singers who have pushed musical boundaries and rebelled against the system with varying degrees of success. An A-lister thumbing his nose at accepted norms may serve as a catalyst and inspiration to others in the industry while also growing opera’s fan base. And, for music fans who think opera singers can’t sing anything outside the genre convincingly, “CALL OUT” pokes holes in that misconception, too.

James’ body of work, in and outside the opera industry, removes the limiting factor through his enviable, wide-ranging fan base born of an unwillingness to be hemmed in by any medium or genre.  Those who know him understand that Zachary James is Zachary James; he’s curious and brave, requisite traits for an artist whose vision was to convert a Carnegie program into a carnival of the mind.

Calling Out the Team

“CALL OUT’s” compositions and video are paper and celluloid without the instrumentalists who bring the two to life. The contributions of pianist Charity Wicks, theorboist Brandon J. Acker, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, soprano Nielson, and guitarists Skrla and Frederick Poholek (James’ father) are as crucial to the success of the work as the visuals. And none of “CALL OUT” would be possible without the superb work of the 10 women composers James showcases: Juliana Hall, Kristin Hevner, Apsara Kasiraman, Bonnie Montgomery, Rene Orth, Rachel J. Peters, Paola Prestini, Kamala Sankaram, Persis Parshall Vehar, and Barbara Strozzi.

It’s James’ face on the cover, but “CALL OUT” was born of artistic collaboration of the highest quality.

If you’ve read previous installments of “Off the Beaten Track,” I like to dive into meaning and all that good stuff, giving you my interpretive take. Sometimes, I’m able to bounce ideas off the artist and so I spoke with James by phone, questioning him about overarching themes, structure, and meaning. I was thinking things like nature, obsession, political strife—a whole smorgasbord of potential interpretations.

After I ran through my thoughts, he likened “CALL OUT” to an art gallery; you go in, peruse the pieces, and some will pull you in while others don’t. Your encounter with the album is your encounter. And, as my wife reminded me, “sometimes things are just meant to be beautiful.”

“CALL OUT” is a new chapter in James’ journey as an artist. The 98-minute trip akin to The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and other notable visual albums, is a combo of rollicking fun and self-revealing moments. It’s a well-planned, lovingly curated, and brilliantly executed mash-up that’s exciting and intelligent. Below are a few highlights from an album that has a bit of everything. If I fail to mention a particular piece, it’s not reflective of quality. Trust me, it’s all worth watching.

The “CALL OUT” Shout Outs

James’ visual take on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” captures the absurdity of the source material; his sailing into the world of Herman Melville’s cetacean-sized tome, “Moby Dick,” is a Nantucket sleigh ride into the mind of the obsessed Captain Ahab; and, sticking with pathological anglers, James reels in Hemingway with “Salao,” a piece based on the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel, “Old Man and the Sea.”  These and other literary-inspired works add depth and gravitas, but never in a heavy-handed way.

“CALL OUT” walks a fine line between the raucous and the serious, the vulnerable and the playful. James’ portrayal of the tormented narrator of “The Raven,” outfitted as Poe in early 19th-century attire, complete with a wig of unkempt dark hair, signature mustache, and made up deep-set eyes, is one of the best I’ve seen. Many consider the 20-minute video, backed by Kristin Hevner’s cinematic score, the crown jewel of the album.

But there are many jewels. While “The Raven” is striking in its visual and musical scope, “Lagrime Mie,” written by Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi with lyrics by Bonnie Montgomery, stuck with me for its natural beauty. Unlike most of the visuals, “Lagrime Mie,” uses original video. James walks along a brook in lush woodland accompanied by theorboist and Baroque specialist Brandon J. Acker. When not stepping gingerly upon slick rocks, he lays Ophelia-like on his back, with arms outstretched in the fast-moving stream. Its serenity stands in sharp contrast to the tortured souls inhabiting the works of Hemingway, Melville, and Poe.

“A Song Without Words,” a vocalise penned by Bonnie Montgomery, belongs in a National Geographic presentation about sunflowers. The video of vast fields of proud-standing, yellow beauties cast against a never-ending clear blue sky is magnificent. You even get to ride along on a harvester. It’s poignant to watch the once brilliant corollas, drooping low after a summer of basking in the sun, get run down and devoured by a metal monster [Insert your own meaning here]. Creating a sound as colorful as the golden flowers are Montgomery on piano, Megan Nielson’s vocals, and Kevin Skrla on steel guitar. As for its sound, “A Song Without Words” is unabashedly “country.”

Another track I’ll recommend, and Hemingway forgive me, is  “Ahab.” I beg Papa’s indulgence because, alongside him, Melville is one of my favorite authors. In our talk, James related finding stock footage of a white whale was as elusive as the leviathan itself; neither harpoon nor camera can capture it. “Ahab” combines stock footage of a lighter-colored whale with James’s portrayal of the mad captain tossing and turning in a watery nightmare only a maimed whaler’s mind could conjure. Composer Juliana Hall wrote the music for the sea tale with Charity Wicks on piano. Caitlin Vincent penned the libretto.

“CALL OUT’s” spine, so to speak, are fragments of Sappho’s poetry (Most of the poet’s full works are lost to time). The poems often serve as lead-ins for tracks. While I can’t say there’s a 1:1 correlation between a poem’s subject and the work that follows, perhaps there are loose connections. As an example, Sappho’s “Then Beautiful Swift Sparrows” precedes the sunflower-filled “A Song Without Words.” Nature ties the two together, but, to my wife’s point, maybe the meaning is beauty itself, and we can all use some beauty these days.

James pointed to “The Unity of Men in Love,”  as one of his favorite pieces. Persis Parshall Vehar composed the music to LGBTQ scholar and author George Klawitter’s poetry. Here, James appears in front of a simple white backdrop and looks directly into the camera. His goal to recreate the intimacy and directness of a recital is effective and elegant in its simplicity.

My last shout out on “CALL OUT” goes to a sequence of four songs written by Kamala Sankaram. “Call Out I: Call Out” and “Call Out II: Mountain,” explore cancel culture and the modern truism ‘fame is fleeting, but the internet is forever.’ America’s turbulent political landscape appears in “Call Out III: Welcome to America,” and rounding out the set, “Call Out IV: Field” is a dance piece for one, choreographed and performed by Nick Korkos. Pianist Charity Wicks accompanies three of the pieces, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler plays on all four.

Will you sit and watch the full 98 minutes? I suggest doing so at least once to understand the creative scope of James’ endless imagination. I’m confident you’ll find something to like and wish to revisit many times over.


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