Joseph Keckler Glorifies Death Scenes Through a Collage of Opera

All of opera is a rehearsal for death, says Joseph Keckler, an artist who uses his more than three-octave vocal range and sense of humor as a tool to make contemporary artwork, often connected to opera. His Creative Capital Project, Let Me Die, is an avant-garde collage of death scenes from the history of opera—from Verdi to Bizet—turned into an evening-length performance. The project premieres as a joint venture between two performance festivals, Opera Philadelphia and Fringe Arts, September 21-28.

We spoke to Joseph Keckler as he was working with a costume designer, Diego Montoya. 

Alex Teplitzky—So, how are you describing Let Me Die?

Joseph Keckler—It’s a collage of opera death scenes interwoven with my commentary on opera and death. I would say it’s half an essay, and half a ceremony where I’m trying to open a space to consider death, history, and ritual.

Alex—How did you get started working on this subject?

Joseph—I’m a singer and I use my voice in different ways. For a number of years I’ve been channeling the form of opera through my own writing, and singing original in foreign languages about episodes from my own existence—a break-up, a bad trip, a late night in an E.R. in Paris, and so on.

At some point I was thinking about these death scenes in canonical operas, and how death is at the center of the medium of tragic opera. Death is the event that everybody waits for. At the same time people talk about the art form of opera in terms of death, that it’s a dead form, or a form that has come back to life. So, I wanted to work at that intersection.

I wanted to go into the repertoire itself for this piece— to pull fragments from Verdi, Monteverdi, Strauss—and do something interesting. I’ve approached Let Me Die as a scavenger, going through scores and looking for death moments and pulling them out, and then putting them together.

The show is real departure for me because although this will involve certain sequences of solo performance, it will also heavily involve a cast. There are three other singers who perform scenes and arias. I didn’t feel that I was equipped to perform all the deaths, and I wanted some other opera singers with higher voices. So we have a soprano, a mezzo, and a countertenor—the very talented Veronica Chapman-Smith, Natalie Levin, and Darius Elmore.

Opera has so much to do with women. It has to do with the diva. The diva is the figure at the head of the art form. Emerging from Greek tragedy, a lot of opera circles around the death of powerful women. There was something of a feminist angle that I felt that I couldn’t fully embody.

Alex—Right, because the first time I saw you present about the work, I believe you were talking about it as a solo piece.

Joseph—Yes, I was thinking about it as a solo piece. It went through a lot of different iterations. At first, I thought it would be a durational piece. It would be about repeated actions, and different scenes, but it wouldn’t really have a shape. People could come and go and see it for as long they wanted, or as little. Eventually it morphed into something that wanted more of a shape.

I’m good at performing some of the death scenes, but as much of a range as I have, I mainly operate in just a couple of modes in my work. There’s a mode of absurdism, and a mode of something more mystical. The singers I’m working with will be acting, and hopefully striking a number of other tones.

This is a piece that still could have different incarnations and iterations. It should exist as a video piece in the future. It could still exist as a durational piece too. For this iteration it’s an evening-length theater piece that’s still not narrative or linear, but has a shape.

I feel really free, and I work really hard at the crafts that I’ve taken up. I let them mingle in ways that feel fresh and dynamic. At a certain point people accept you on your own terms, but it’s not always immediate.

Alex—It’s interesting to think about the different audiences that will come see the work in the two separate contexts—Opera Philadelphia and Fringe Arts, which presents innovative contemporary performance. The Opera Philadelphia audience, I think, will be more informed about which operas you are pulling from, while the Fringe Arts audience might be more interested in how you formed an experimental work from collage. Have you thought about how the different audiences will experience Let Me Die?

Joseph—I have. I think it will be interesting, but it’s something that I can’t really predict right now. I’m drawing on strategies more from the history of avant-garde performance: cut-up, collage, a level of abstraction, a particular embrace of ritual. I am approaching the scores more like found text, or found footage. So, I think that way of working will make sense to the Fringe Arts audience. On the other hand, the content that I’m drawing from will have other dimensions for the opera audience. Because they know the sources and the medium, the opera audience will be more critical in certain ways, but there are other layers that they can tap into and appreciate. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

I’m really mindful of how my work reads to certain groups. There are short pieces that I’ve done where I’ll do them in the art world one night, and I’ll do them in a dive bar or comedy club the next night, and they work in both places, but the tone changes. There’s certain work of mine—probably, at least half of it or more—I would never do in a comedy club because it just isn’t funny, and I can’t really trick people into thinking it is, nor would I want to. Then there’s also work that has a certain immediacy that a popular audience connects with.

For this, it will be really interesting. That’s always a conversation that’s ongoing—a process of information gathering of how people are reading it depending on where I am. I’m always taking notes.

Alex—I was listening to the Song Exploder podcast, the episode about the Sleater-Kinney song inspired by your performance. I didn’t know until hearing that that you performed at comedy clubs.

JosephYeah, that was cool. I hadn’t known that my performance inspired them to write that. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney saw me at this thing called Weirdo Night, a series invented by Dynasty Handbag (Jibz Cameron,) the performance artist who has for a long time really straddled a line between art and comedy. She moved to LA a few years ago and founded this wildly popular evening at Zebulon. I love playing there. It’s a fantastic night with great energy. A couple days later I went with Jibz to a Fundraiser pool party at Kathleen Hanna’s and met Carrie there.

In terms of playing in comedy clubs—I had a stretch of that and it was a total accident how it started. One time I was a musical guest on a comedy and storytelling bill for a series in Brooklyn put on by some people associated with This American Life—and my piece landed in an unexpected explosively funny way. So then I got invited to all these other comedy things.

I’m developing something right now that will be for the comedy world, or a surrealist sect of the comedy world, I might say. The cultural landscape has really changed even in the time that I’ve been working. Some kids coming up now probably would have been performance artists if they had started a little earlier. The energy moved to comedy. The scenes change. Everything wants to be everything, everything’s up for grabs.

Alex—With Let Me Die, it sounds like you’re moving even further into new territory. From what I can tell, it sounds like you’re the director of this bigger piece that’s not just you.

Joseph—Yes, when you called me, I was dealing with design of the costumes. Diego Montoya agreed to make costumes. I’ve always admired his work, from art installations he made for events and festivals in Brooklyn. Recently, he designed Jennifer Lewis’s Oscar look, and he’s designed for Sasha Velour and Drag Race. He’s this incredible artist. He has this week to work on it, so my co-director Elizabeth Gimbel and I have been going back and forth with Diego. We have a limited time period to get it done, and I was working on it when you called.

So, yes I’m writing, composing a little, coordinating everything, doing way too much administrative work, working with the singers, I put together the set elements and am guiding visual aspects—I’m directing, in a way, to a large degree on this one. But I have the title of Creator and Elizabeth has the title of Director. I think this is accurate. She will put a final polish on everything, tighten it up. Kick it up a notch. And that final step is night and day. She has also guided my writing process, suggesting cuts and expansions. We also cast this together and she’s had a voice in all decisions along the way.

She directed my first solo works, as well as the show I premiered earlier this year, Train With No Midnight. She was also involved on my book. We’re partners in this and I bounce ideas off her. If I have an outré idea I try to get the green light form her and she refines some of my impulses. I would say it’s collaborative.

I’m pretty hands-on in other aspects of design and so on. We have a fantastic video designer, Lianne Arnold, who I was first connected to through Beth Morrison on Train. A sound designer, Isaac Levine, who I’m working on a few things with, a good friend and brilliant artist. And my collaborator, Matthew Dean Marsh and I arranged the score together. We moved into a shared brain for a while at the Baryshnikov Art Center, and he acted as a musical dramaturg, I would say.

The dancer Saori Tsukada is involved in the performance in an elusive way—I don’t want to spoil anything. And William Kim is the pianist; Lavinia Pavlish is the violinist.

I really have my hands in every tiny element but I rely on working with smart and talented people. I’m doing more than seems possible, but at the same time I don’t have the skill set to do all that stuff alone. This whole thing hinges also on the visions of other artists who are extremely talented.

Alex—How has Creative Capital helped with this work?

Joseph—Creative Capital has helped my work in a radical way. In fact, I have a bottomless gratitude toward Creative Capital. It rejiggered my approach to working as an artist. It has made so much possible for me on a tangible level, and on a mental level. I think it’s transformed the way I think about working as an artist in the world.

Alex—What do you mean by that?

Joseph—There have been a series of opportunities that have led to other opportunities that came through Creative Capital. It’s like a fire had been started. It’s not a rags-to-riches story, but the emphasis on empowering artists and putting artists at the helm of their own work has really helped me. The entire psychology of Creative Capital, the mission, the approach is rigorous and has changed the way I thought about art and capitalism.

Alex—You are kind of like this Renaissance artist—you do a bit of everything and you do it really well. How do you navigate all the disciplines you juggle? I feel like it would be overwhelming at some points, but also exhilarating.

Joseph—That’s true. I don’t know—I work every day of the week. It is exhilarating because in a certain way I feel really free. I’ve tried to protect my freedom to follow my impulses. I haven’t always followed them, or sometimes I am subject to influence or I digress. But often, if you have a set of impulses and they don’t seem related but they are persistent enough, they actually do happen to be related, and after a while they will coalesce into something really singular. I’ve tried not to be beholden to a certain market or set of expectations.  To me it doesn’t feel like different disciplines, but one whole.

It still might confuse people, if they are introduced to me as a writer, or a singer. People come into my work for different reasons, and sometimes they don’t know where to put me. At the same time, I feel really free, and I work really hard at the crafts that I’ve taken up. I let them mingle in ways that feel fresh and dynamic. At a certain point people accept you on your own terms, but it’s not always immediate.

Read more about and purchase tickets to Joseph Keckler’s performance Let Me Die, coming to Philadelphia September 21-28.