Post image for Occupying Opera

(Photo credit: Gian Maria Annovi)

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Prating on about my own work, much of which is already somehow autobiographical, feels like shining a light on a palimpsest of self-involvement, or whipping up a triple-narcissism layer cake, but what can I do? Here, have a slice!


Recent Occupations


My most recent live performance project is called I am an Opera. I trained (and continue to train) as a classical singer, but have, for the most part, seen and identified myself as an artist. For this reason I felt I could utilize the vocal technique that real opera demands, while thinking broadly about the form from the perspective of an outsider.

I also wanted to cross-contaminate opera and solo autobiographical performance—in order to bring two reviled art forms together. You see, while a handful of Americans may claim a vague admiration for Pavarotti and Callas, many more squint suspiciously at the highfalutin classical genre and some even harbor near-violent feelings against it, as I learned one night last year: I was leaving a friend’s birthday party, when another attendee referred to me as an ‘opera singer.’ This innocent naming spurred an unhinged nanny and OWS supporter to follow me to my train, while ranting loudly about what a classist, elitist, racist—nay, white supremacist– art form opera was. I wanted to explain that she had me wrong, that I wished, in fact, to occupy the art form, one could say. I wanted to tell her how much my vocal training had helped me in participating in the human microphone. But I couldn’t get a word in. A mere 48 hours later this woman was jailed for elbowing a police officer in the face at Zuccotti Park. Knowing that she was behind bars made me feel that at least I could continue working on my show in relative safety.

Many of my previous performance works could be called ‘memory-theater.’ In the past I have staged autobiographical stories, often reconstructing scenes from my daily life to focus on a particular setting (usually a workplace) or character (typically a compelling but unknown artist/person who longs to be center stage but who is stuck muddling through on the margins.) I have continuously searched for– yet have not always discovered– formal mechanisms that could upend conventional ‘solo autobiographical performance.’ In 2011, I created Jobz, a suite of stories depicting each low-level position I’ve held in the NYC arts. Because my first gig was to hawk audio guides at a museum, this piece was framed as an audio tour for a high-concept exhibition. When the time came for me to make the section about working at a bootleg opera operation, burning CDs under the supervision of an interesting fellow who had been introduced to me as ‘the opera pirate,’ it occurred to me that instead of writing another monologue, I should create a bel canto aria in Italian. So that’s what I did—I performed an aria, complete with English supertitles, which described the particular intermingling of the sublime and the mundane I experienced at this job: all day I performed repetitive tasks while simultaneously listening to intoxicating and dramatic opera recordings from decades past. The refrain of this aria is “I copy them”, which refers both to the mechanistic task of duplicating CDs and also to my delivering a story in operatic form, imitating the singers I heard while on the job.

In my previous work I had relied on heightened language to imbue banal details with some modicum of urgency, to make the familiar feel strange, and to create a sense of distance between myself and my own autobiography. This new device of turning my life into opera appeared to accomplish those three goals with a flourish. So I decided to create an entire piece in this mode. I based I am an Opera, my resulting 60-minute quadrilingual escapade, on a traumatic and semi-accidental “shroom” trip I experienced several years ago. During that hallucinatory episode I was assailed with images from throughout my life. In regard to memory, my recollection of the trip becomes a room that opens to all others. This is to say that I am an Opera is still memory-theater, but is much more fractal than my previous works. And a trip, I figured, allows or even demands wild shifts in form in order to create a sense of an unstable reality. I also got a kick out of pairing a topic that reeks of juvenile delinquency with a technically demanding and sophisticated genre.


Anxiety and Disorder


My work tends to be formally fluid— a single performance may move restlessly from dense monologue to absurd torch song to meditative visual sequence to faux opera to proper opera to casual spoken improvisation. I often find myself resisting the medium in which I’m working. For instance, a voice teacher (a vital yet invisible figure in opera) appears in I am an Opera, but she is inside a silent film. She is a silenced voice teacher. In the performance I continue singing, accompanied by operatic supertitles, and she speaks via film cards. We interact with one another while inhabiting different art forms. I came to realize that silent film is really driven by visual action, punctuated by occasional dialogue. But this voice teacher is a longwinded storyteller—she is completely verbal. So the character is at odds with the medium in which she exists.

When I was a student I was enrolled in a creative writing class and a figurative painting class simultaneously. One day my writing teacher commented that my stories were overly concerned with visual detail. The same week my painting teacher remarked that my paintings had recently become “too verbal” and urged me to free myself from my obsession with the named object. I wondered if there was some magnetism, a longing between my flawed paintings and flawed writings. Perhaps they are like two siblings, I thought, always jealous of what the other one gets to do.


Theater of Desire


Desire serves as both a motivator and a topic in my work. My fantasies are often better described onstage than realized. I use visual language in lieu of sets. My work is populated by subjects who are sick with longing, high on longing, figures who want to be more than what they are. I include myself in this group. After my time as a media-drifter, I, still a student, found a home with Holly Hughes, who created a radically inclusive space in which one entertain and combine a variety of social and artistic identities. Holly has remarked recently that in her practice and teaching desire precedes form, which has prompted me to pursue this line of thinking. Erin Markey, who also worked under Holly, always recalls a certain writing exercise: describe the show you would make if you had unlimited funding. After doing this, you were generally relieved that you did not have unlimited funding, as the extravagant fantasy you had just outlined was far more compelling as an image than as a reality. And during collaborative group pieces, students often disagreed intensely about the content and direction of the scene at hand; the disagreements generally arose around sensitive issues– race, gender, religion. Anticipating the impossibility of consensus, Holly would suggest that students actually script and stage the very arguments they were having in the moment. The implication of this strategy seemed to be that we were all already characters in some grand narrative that had been written while our heads were turned. To become aware of this narrative was to begin to intervene, to begin to have agency within it.

Perhaps it was that sort of artistic strategy that has caused me to think about my own life as a sort of found text, to think of the scenes that unfurl around me as readymades waiting to be labeled as art.


Against Interpretation

I never wanted to become a purely interpretive artist, perhaps because I saw how little agency they are allowed. Instead, I’ve attempted to obtain the skills I want to use and then put them in the service of my own kooky ideas and troubled visions.

After a performance earlier this year a singer who appears at the Metropolitan Opera told me that she appreciated what I was doing. “I envy you,” she leaned in to confide. “I am bound to the will of the composer and the director.” At this moment I imagined the composer and the director as a pair of churchy parents who forbade their daughter to go the school dance. An actor recently complained to me that he felt he always had to conform to “a type, which is constricting and unfulfilling.” Interpretive artists in this country often have the personality bled out of them in the course of training. The tendency toward blandness, prevalent in TV and theater, has crept into the opera world as well, where there is now the message to singers that they don’t fit in onstage and in fact, may not fit on the stage. Opera, whose curtains have always parted for corpulent wonders, is now cracking down on bodies. The centrality of the voice, which once defined the form, is being challenged by a new and fussy insistence on visual “realism,” the guiding, spurious idea being that large people are not objects of desire in real life and are not appealing or valid as leads on the stage.

A contemporary conversation about interdisciplinarity and hybridity in performance should, in my mind, reflect not only on the interstices and murky spaces between purely creative art forms, but should also examine the rift between creation and interpretation— in training and practice. It behooves interpretive artists to create roles for themselves. Of course there are risks: One time I landed a gig as a spokesperson for an ad campaign for a major company. The money was going to be good. But I was fired after the clients discovered some of my own work online. The piece that damned me was a rather whimsical yet sensual video that contained a brief and rollicking BDSM sequence. I played both of the characters involved. At the time, I was disappointed to lose that job. After a couple days of whining, though, a sense of relief washed over me. I thought thank god, or whoever, that I have my own work. Not only for the autoerotics.

Joseph Keckler is a singer, writer, and interdisciplinary artist whose concerts and performance pieces have been seen at The New Museum, SXSW Music, Joe’s Pub, Afterglow Festival, BAM Fischer in conjunction with Issue Project Room, and many other venues in the U.S. and in Europe. Keckler has received residencies from MacDowell and Yaddo, and was awarded a 2012 Franklin Furnace Grant, and a 2012 NYFA Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Work. His latest show, I am an Opera, was commissioned by Dixon Place and premiered in April. He recently appeared as a featured performed on BBC America‘s The Nerdist. He is currently working on a pop album and a collection of stories.