Barry Bless is, in the very best way, a character.
It was probably inevitable that he would one day be cast as one.
The local accordionist has a featured role in Virginia Opera’s current production, “Il Postino,” a tragic fantasy imagining the exile of communist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to an Italian island so small that they need to hire the titular postman to handle his mail. The second act concludes with a wedding and the score called for an instrument not usually found in the orchestra pit.
“I imagined someone asking, ‘does anyone know a communist accordion player?” Bless says.
They could hardly have found anyone more suitable. Bless anchors the weekly, unabashedly leftist Breakfast Cabaret at Southside’s Crossroads Coffee and Tea, for well over 200 performances now. His accordion has defined the sound of a swarm of local world music ensembles: Happy Lucky Combo, The Indigenous Gourd Orchestra, the Ululating Mummies.
His personal style is distinctive. He's always clad with natty eccentricity, a ringmaster’s pointed goatee, occasional pirate earrings, and a fondness of fine hats uncommon in a man with a full head of hair.
But the challenges of opera were entirely new to him.
“It’s high anxiety,” Bless says. “I am onstage for only four minutes, but at the front, with the orchestra below me and almost the entire cast behind me. I am accompanying a great singer playing a great poet. And there are unseen people doing the lights, the sets, the sound. All eyes are on me."
He notes that in his regular bands, he plays for an hour and mistakes are embraced, adding: "Here, if I screw up, I am a screwup.”
While the demands are high, so are the rewards. High culture seems to float on a cloud of bourgeois privilege, but the reality is much more down-to-earth.
“The amount of talent is amazing,” Bless says. “The musicians are hard-hard working, and not really getting paid anything in relation to their intellectual and physical labor. And the collaborative culture they have created is wonderful. Credit goes to Adam Turner.”
Polishing his brief performance required significant commitment.
“I cleared my calendars; told my bands I couldn’t make practices. The only thing I carried on was the Breakfast Cabaret,” he says, adding that he doesn't read music and recordings of the piece are hard to come by. "I watched a video from the LA Opera and the playing and music didn’t synch up. This wasn’t me being a bad music reader, I watched his fingers, and those were not the notes he was playing.”
Although he found a better recording, he briefly considered backing out. Demonstrations were starting up in Neruda’s Chile. His daughter Isadora was doing her debut performance with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet.
“I shared my indecision and they told me I was past the point of no return. I thought, OK, and jumped into the fire.”
One of the biggest adjustments is working with a conductor.
“Usually, when I am playing, my eyes are closed," Bless says. “But here everyone is watching the conductor. The music has so much rubato, tempos always changing. He is indispensable, beautiful to watch, a lovely, gestural dance. But it took some getting used to.”
Over the past month, the company has toured with “Il Postino” in Norfolk and Northern Virginia and returns home to Richmond this weekend for the final performances on Friday and Sunday afternoon. In conjunction will be some special operatic guests at Friday’s Cabaret. Soprano Inna Dukach, who plays Neruda’s wife Mathilde, will sit in. Also featured, in addition to the regular crew, are bass vocalist Richard Williams and trumpet/electronic wind instrument virtuoso, Victor Haskins.
So, if you're keeping score, in one day the discerning listener can drink coffee in the morning to hits straight from the streets of contemporary revolutionary Chile, then steep in a musical evening full of love, death, and mid-20th-century radical idealism.
And inhabiting these parallel artistic and political universes will be Bless, a dapper man in a colorful costume breathing out bittersweet, but ultimately hopeful melodies -- with bellows, buttons, and the pearlescent vertical keys of a classic Guerrini accordion.
The Breakfast Cabaret is at Crossroads Coffee and Tea, Friday mornings from 9-10:30 a.m. “Il Postino” is at the Dominon Energy Center, Friday Nov. 22 at 8 p.m., or Sunday, Nov. 24, at 2:30 p.m.. Tickets are $26.50 to $131.50.