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Death by a Thousand Operas

Joseph Keckler performing "Let Me Die" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Joseph Keckler performing “Let Me Die” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — Arms flung wide, Joseph Keckler collapses to the floor and dies.

Then, a couple seconds later, he gets up. And dies again.

After 10 or so iterations, we take a break. Then: more dying.

Over the course of approximately two hours, before an audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), Joseph Keckler performed his work in progress “Let Me Die,” an examination of life, death, and opera that he’s been developing for some time now, but quite intensively during a residency at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design over the last three months. The piece presents death scenes excerpted from dozens of different operas, all of them executed by Keckler, who has an extraordinary range that enables him to sing deep bass through to falsetto. In truth, it is startling to hear such an opera-sized voice come out of a standard-sized young man, with a hipsterish swoop of brown bangs.

Keckler’s love of opera is clearly genuine, although his formal voice training began in the context of a visual art education, rather than a conservatory environment, and he’s more multimedia performance artist than an opera singer. He cites Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Feodor Chaliapan, and Maria Callas as “strong artistic/intellectual/political forces,” and the four-movement work in progress presented at the MOCAD on Saturday, December 12, directly refers to several other seminal names in opera as well. It covers a wide cross-section of the operatic canon … or at least the dramatic ends of many of the canon’s title characters.

Joseph Keckler performing "Let Me Die" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Joseph Keckler performing “Let Me Die” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Why so much dying? “The thought of dying over and over seemed funny to me, for one,” says Keckler via email, and indeed it is humorous, buttressed by much vamping and running patter between bouts of dying. “I was also attracted to the paradox of the death aria: a representation of the body failing via a virtuosic display that requires so much of the body. Beyond this, since the death is often the event the entire opera is moving towards, and the arrival is often both devastating and satisfying, I wondered what would happen if this event were isolated, divorced from context and narrative build.”

Over the two hours, withseveral jumps to music videos staging Keckler’s original compositions, the deaths become both more and less dramatic. The intensity of the repetition minimizes the impact of each individual death, but Keckler’s body language, at first reserved, expands into wild flourishes and collapses as he progresses from finale to finale. What begins as funny becomes increasingly tragic; Keckler’s power as a singer and his commanding stage presence draw the audience out of the comedy of the work — but then he punctuates the drama with humorous commentary.

Joseph Keckler's "Let Me Die" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
Joseph Keckler’s “Let Me Die” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (click to enlarge)

We take frequent breaks, sometimes to watch videos, including “Real Strangers from the Internet,” which Keckler made during his residency in collaboration with a U of M Stamps music video class. The song is a punchy pop crossover composed by Keckler, elaborating on a real-life scenario wherein he invited strangers from the internet to his private residence amid a fit of ennui. Though nobody took him up on his invitation in real life, the video sketches a fantasy of what might have happened, drawing on the operatic tradition of the scene preceding the protagonist’s death. The song has Keckler in the lead, holding forth nervously against a growing chorus of strangers from the internet (played by U of M students, as well as Keckler’s own voice coach) and is frankly a strong contender for my new jam.

More than anything else, the nature of Keckler’s performance is that of a lecture on a selected history of opera, with musical relief and many meandering departures into the everyday implications of life and death. “There is an idea that audiences used to go to the opera to rehearse their own deaths, in a pre-psychoanalytic age where death was less easily postponed through modern science and medicine, an age which preceded that of mass media, and certainly the digital age in which our relationship to the physical has become particularly complicated,” says Keckler. “I’m interested in the traces of such a relationship to this art form, a residue, a resonance that might be present, or missing.”

Joseph Keckler performing "Let Me Die" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (click to enlarge)
Joseph Keckler performing “Let Me Die” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (click to enlarge)

Keckler explores this intersection movingly in another original operatic segment about the death of a relationship. In language that’s revealed to be nonsensical baby talk (transcribed into English and projected, as much of the sung content of the performance is, on a screen behind the stage — a readily identifiable fixture of contemporary opera houses), Keckler mourns the dissolution of a five-year relationship. Seeing opera-level drama applied to the trappings of contemporary romance, with text messages or the metaphoric implications of an endlessly recalculating GPS system, adds a gripping level of emotionality to our increasingly digitized landscape. In modernizing the subject matter, Keckler effectively demonstrates that opera and its mechanics require only the simplest of bridges to offer new insight into our condition of daily living.

Joseph Keckler performed “Let Me Die” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit) on December 12, 1pm.

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