Joseph Keckler

Joseph Keckler on death, opera, and Let Me Die

Joseph Keckler. Photo: Michael Sharkey.

In constant motion between the art and opera worlds by way of popular culture, Joseph Keckler is best known for his vocal shape-shifting and his “faux arias,” which recount daily experiences with great verve. Earlier this year, he performed his Train With No Midnight at the Prototype Festival in New York. In October, he’ll offer a concert series at the Soho Theatre in London. He is also at work on a TV special to be aired at the end of this year. Here he speaks about his first ensemble piece, Let Me Die, which will premiere at FringeArts and Opera Philadelphia on September 21, 2019.

I USED TO WORK FOR A MAN who sold pirated opera recordings. People called him the Opera Pirate. We would listen to recordings and copy them at the same time. At some point I recognized that death is at the center of tragic opera, the event that everyone waits for. And I thought it would be fun to die over and over again, and ultimately to have other people participate in that. It was something of a childlike impulse. On a formal level, I’m curious about how to sustain something that is constantly ending. The idea of going in and taking out all of these little deaths from different operas came from “Lasciatemi morire,” which is the aria of Ariadne when she’s stranded on the isle of Naxos. It’s from a Claudio Monteverdi opera, and it’s the only extant part. So it’s a death song from a lost opera, and I really liked the way that she’s doubly stranded. So I thought, What if all operas were lost, and the deaths were the only parts that survived? I used that as the jumping-off point for fragmentation. 

Let Me Die will be performed by myself, three very singular opera singers—Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante, and Natalie Levin—and an actress/dancer, Saori Tsukada. I will function as a kind of master of ceremonies; Elizabeth Gimbel will direct. I haven’t counted how many deaths there are, but it’ll be at least forty. We’re using very short ones often. It’s going to be very dense. There are suicides; there are murders. There are more abstract deaths, where somebody has a lament but you don’t see them expire on the stage. There’s a mass suicide, just for a second. There’s also a lengthy section at the center that’s very witchy, with self-immolation and a lot of vengeful women. Azucena from Il Trovatore puts a baby in the fire and relives the trauma of watching her mother burn at the stake. She is essentially in dialogue with Medea, who similarly burns herself and her own children; and Electra; and also the grandmother in Jenůfa, who puts the baby under the ice. There’s a freewheeling medley of extreme women. 

I originally conceived the piece as an installation the audience could come in and out of, but ultimately found that I wanted this to be an evening—a focused, almost religious kind of ceremony. I decided that I could weave my own commentary through it, but that, even though I am a flexible performer, this was too big for me, and that other singers were going to more fully inhabit these roles. There are a lot of different waves of feminist critique of opera, and it’s hard to ignore that the deaths of women are at the center of the form. So I chose to introduce a range of femininities—not that I don’t inhabit my own at times, that that’s not in my repertoire. But I thought there should be women involved in this ritual. 

There’ll be absurd moments, and repetition will play out in interesting ways. I think with work like this, you go through a no-man’s-land of boredom and disengagement, and then click into something deeper, a new sensitivity. My collaborator Matthew Dean Marsh and I didn’t include any deaths that weren’t thrilling to us, or beautiful. These deaths are unearned—we haven’t waited for them—but we have taken the best parts of the operas, so it could be explosive just because of the material itself. I feel grounded in the fact that these are devastatingly gorgeous moments. 

There’s a lot of iconic material, and there’s also relatively unknown stuff, like Erik Satie’s opera about the death of Socrates, or Claude Debussy’s opera about the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. I’m going to sing “The Cold Song” from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, which is an aria that’s about the spirit of winter that’s being awakened but wanting to die again. It’s an undeath aria, an aria about coming back to life, the pain of resurrection. So that’s already a twist, but then there’s another layer, because that aria in the cultural memory is closely associated with Klaus Nomi, who sang it in his final performance as he was dying of AIDS. So it becomes a death aria. It was an undeath aria that became a death aria even as he resurrected the aria. So there’s all this complexity of death and undeath.

I’ve been reading The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, and how he links absurdity and divinity is very resonant to me. I find absurdity transcendent. That’s really what I want to be able to deliver. It’s also a lot about pleasure. Humor is pleasure. It is fun to pretend to die, more than pretending to do anything else. And it is fun to watch people pretending to die—at least I hope so! The idea of it is funny, it’s perverse. When I say it, people always laugh. But it’s more difficult doing it, and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.