Interviews

Are You or Aren’t You An Opera? A Conversation with Joseph Keckler

Joseph Keckler (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Joseph Keckler (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Have you ever met a Minotaur, believed you could draw with your voice, try to cut out your voice box, spoken to demons on the phone, or taken a few too many shrooms? Perhaps not, but you can experience all of the above at I am an Opera, a satirical one-person musical show written, composed, and performed by Joseph Keckler, who was awarded a month-long residency that premiered at Dixon Place on New York City’s Lower East Side for the month of April. Unlike many so-called downtown performance artists, Keckler can actually sing and is classically trained — he’s a bass baritone with a multi-octave voice. A Michigan native, he came to New York City in 2005, with a BFA in painting from the University of Michigan. The show was funded by grants from MacDowell Yaddo, and Franklin Furnace, and he won the 2012 NYFA fellowship for his interdisciplinary work in vocal performance, writing, acting, and art.

It’s not strictly a one-person show, because there’s one other character that appears toward the end, a Minotaur played by the Herculean Alex Gulla. Directed by Uwe Mengel, the show plays with the conventions of classical opera. Instead of Madame Butterfly pining away or ill-fated love affairs or the dramatic battles of the gods, I am an Opera dramatizes some mundane moments in Keckler’s own life, beginning with an aria sung in Italian about his ill-fated trip on shrooms in which he takes way too many and hallucinates characters and scenarios, including the travails of his 70-something voice teacher Grace, played by Keckler himself on screen in the style of a silent film. In opera buffa style, he sings about his desire to buy bondage pants on Saint Mark’s Place, stages a duet with a self-portrait he painted in college, and conjures up strangers from the internet, one of whom is the Minotaur. It’s a multi-media show with video projections, and includes English subtitles for those songs in the show sung by Keckler in the original Italian, German, and French, an act of veracity and over-the-top virtuosity that only heightens the sense of the absurd. One of Keckler’s admirers compared I am an Opera to an Andy Kaufman routine. I caught up with him after his show.

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Gerry Visco: You won the NYFA award for interdisciplinary art.  What are the challenges for being interdisciplinary?

Joseph Keckler: What is your market? What is your identity? By what terms should your work be evaluated? Some days Uwe Mengel and I thought of this piece as an installation and others thought of it as a play. I think artistic orientation is fluid. I’m tired of talking about it, frankly.

GV: Is this a satire or a real opera?

JK: What is a real opera? I’ve never been very good with reality. The show is a collage in a sense. It’s a portrait, in another sense. It does use strategies of satire, pastiche, and deconstruction. I’m not trying to make fun of opera in any way, though the show often plays as funny. I’m invoking some familiar operatic tropes but there’s not a linear narrative — I am attempting to break form and continually negotiate audience expectations. The entire piece is a formal exercise. The framework of a “trip” gives permission for formal shifts to occur. In one section my character inhabits an opera, while another is speaking from out of a silent film — existing in two different art forms. I can move from that to a French song that feels like a pastiche of Satie to minimalistic spoken word. I’m exploiting the tension between real or not real. I’m singing in a legitimate voice but about stories that are trivial on the surface — like a piece in German lied bout spending all my money on Goth clothing. It may seem absurd, but it’s a song about sacrifice!

GV: What is performance art and is that what you do?

JK: I’m pulling myself out of the semantic tarpit that is the label “performance artist.” Performance art carries wildly different connotations for different groups of people. A couple of years ago the term “performance artist” conjured a stale and dated feeling in the realm of New York theater while it was gaining cache in the visual art world and in popular culture. Lady Gaga claimed to be a performance artist and Marina Abramović was entering a new level of mainstream visibility while someone calling themselves a performance artist in the downtown NYC theater scene would be looked at askance. In Europe the boundaries are clearer. If you’re performing action-based work, you’re a performance artist. If you’re doing something that seems remotely like acting, then it’s theater.

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GV: You transitioned from visual art to performing?

JK: Maybe I’m trippin’ but I consider what I do to be rooted in the visual tradition. I was not trained in theater.

GV: The New York Times critic described you as “funny and casually charismatic, with a smoky, resonant baritone” and described this piece as “stylish,” but seemed to want a full-blown opera. At the moment, the piece is 55 minutes. Will you expand the piece into a four-hour Wagnerian saga full of Strum und Drang. What do you envision?

JK: I absolutely look at this as an ongoing project. In terms of the New York Times review — perhaps what I need to do is go the opposite direction and refuse narrative more forcefully and decidedly. More chaos! More nonsense! Maybe I should perform the piece in a gravel pit. In any case, I would like to create an ACT II. I got 99 problems, but a plot ain’t one.

GV: Are you or aren’t you an opera?

JK: I am one. I think it’s time for operas everywhere to stand up and sing out.

GV: Have you had any tech difficulties?

JK: This has been more elaborate in terms of tech than some earlier productions.

GV: Tell me about it.

JK: This show is more complicated because there’s a sophisticated sound design and video design and since I’m mostly speaking and singing in foreign languages everything is translated in supertitles.

GV: Have you had any technical goofs?

JK: The first weekend everything was incredibly smooth but I do have four to five people in the tech booth. Last night everything crashed and I had to improvise for 15 minutes before we got everything running again. The audience and I made up an aria about technological failure in an exquisite corpse style. I had everybody contribute a line, then I sang the song “Dark End of The Street” by Dan Pen, which is about a secret love affair. The problem was the license of the video program had expired and I had to go to get my credit card and walk to the tech booth. It almost became a comic routine between me and my stage manager Sara. She was calling out, “what’s your zip code?” The audience seemed to like that better than the show itself. Some thought it was part of the actual show.

5147729629_f812f468db_oGV: How did you develop the idea for the show?

JK: It started with a couple of arias and I decided I wanted to expand it into an entire piece, and so I worked on it at a residency at Yaddo, and I did an incarnation of it at the second annual Provincetown Afterglow Festival in the fall. I’ve been working on the piece for a year and a half.

GV: In I Am An Opera you sing in Italian, German, French, and English. Do you actually speak foreign languages?

JK: No, opera singers have diction training, but I’m learning Italian.

GV: The New York Times called you a “charismatic mop top”?  What IS a mop top? 

JK: I’m a mop topera.

GV: How long have you been applying for grants and not gotten them?

JK: Five years plus — this year I had a feeling I might. I was excited about the project and it seemed like the right time. This was a more unique and more developed proposal. When people know your work, it’s helpful to just be seen, even in a small place. I did a non-paying gig, but someone on the panel saw it and could vouch for me.

GV: What’s been your craziest gig?

JK: I was singing in the chapel of an old Victorian-Gothic mansion in Saratoga Springs when a bat flew in and started circling me. I just kept singing. I was singing a Schubert song about All Souls Day or Day of the Dead in Mexico. He left after the song was over. The audience expected me to stop, but I didn’t. The bat added to the whole performance. He seemed to like the singing.

GV: What’s the worst thing about being an artist or performer?

JK: It’s emotionally complex dealing with the combination of adulation and obscurity. Also, there’s always a tension even in good moments thinking about the pressured situations you are faced with while performing.

GV: What is your next step now that the show is over this weekend? Any plans?

JK: I’m going to be recording some new songs and older monologues. I’m getting a book ready. And I want to tour. A piece from the shroom aria directed by Liam Lynch is coming out in a couple of weeks. And I’ll appear on the May 4th episode of Chris Hardwick’s BBC America show The Nerdist, which is a new variety talk-show.

GV: Can you tell me where I can buy some shrooms?

JK: [No reply.]

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