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Joseph Keckler’s Delirious, Dark Arts

Joseph Keckler’s Delirious, Dark Arts

Joseph Keckler
Photography by M. Sharkey

The performer discusses opera, romantic entanglements, out obsessions with screens, and his drive to entertain audiences.

Brecht once wrote:

"In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times."

Let's face it, these are pretty dark times. But humanity, against all evidence to the contrary, seems also to be endlessly full of hope. It's a cheerfully naive and stubborn aspect of the human condition which we will--hopefully--never lose. We shall always have our lamentations and also our Ode(s) to Joy. But what does it sound like to sing joyfully about despair? It seems to me that some of the most powerful art in the world does exactly this, lifting us out of the gloom by grasping it fully, albeit playfully. Enter Joseph Keckler, stage left: part operatic wunderkind, part avant-garde troubadour, part comedian from the Theatre of the Absurd. Keckler is in the process of carving out a singular niche in the world of song and performance.

The first time I saw Joseph perform was in January of 2011 and was so perplexed I contacted him shortly afterward to ask if he'd sit for a portrait, hoping the time we spent together might lead to some greater understanding. That did and also did not happen. Keckler is an enigma but not purposefully or preciously so. His chosen subjects are at once intimate and universal; his brilliant technique commanding but at the same moment, disarmingly vulnerable. He straddles multiple disciplines and genres, creating song-cycles, hallucinatory video and vaudeville. But through all of this finely-tuned maneuvering he reveals his greatest talent: a pure, pleasure-seeking drive to entertain.

I caught up with Joseph last week, hot off the heels of a European mini-tour of his critically acclaimed "I am An Opera" and preparing for this year's second installment of PEN DIY at the Ace Hotel on October 5.

XXM: Where in the world are you now?

Joseph Keckler: I am in Ann Arbor right now as an artist in residence at University of Michigan. I'll be making a couple music videos here with students, revising some writing, and cobbling together a bunch of operatic death scenes for a piece I'm working on. I'm currently going through videos of opera deaths and making notes such as "Excellent stabbing! Good disturbing chords at end." I'm trying to get settled in here and it's been hard to keep track of where I am myself. There was a day the other week where I was in three different countries within 24 hours and I did find it discombobulating. And I mean actually hanging out in these three different countries... not just a stopover or something. I haven't toured that much really, so I'm still dazzled by such a possibility.

I can imagine! The death scenes research sounds like a lot of fun. I remember as a teenager cataloguing all the ocular injuries in the movies I watched. SO many. Obviously, opera is a veritable cemetery of characters. Any particularly gruesome or creative demises you're drawn to?

Ocular injuries in cinema. I never thought about those. There's Un Chien Andalou obviously and Pasolini's Oedipus. Surely there's something more recent and mainstream that I'm forgetting. Is anyone blinded with bleach in Bridesmaids? That would have improved the film in my humble opinion. Well, I haven't thought about choosing a favorite demise. I do appreciate a good death aria and the paradoxical way that a character who is supposedly fatally wounded or otherwise enfeebled can deliver the most arresting and even technically demanding lament. But that's the way opera works. Right now I'm concerned with cataloguing them. The Stabbies (suicides or murders with a dagger, sword, or knife), the Sickies (consumptives and the like), the Poison People, and those who self-immolate, go charging on their steeds into an inferno, are burned at the stake, or who die a supernatural death and descend to hell. I might throw in a Lamentation Station for characters who are mourning the death of another.

I will try to perform a bunch of these deaths in succession. I'm concerned right now with finding deaths that are very over the top, because those will read the best. In Orfeo, Eurydice simply "vanishes" and I can't make that come across as clearly, for instance, especially since these little death nuggets are divorced from all narrative and visual context, and I'll be performing them alone.

I decided to do this project because death is at the center of tragic opera. When I used to sing at a little opera house, I remember the choristers sitting around the table in the back, playing cards, and cracking, "Is she dead, yet? Jesus. Har har..." And at the same time, people talk about opera being "dead" and the audience "dying."


Let's talk a little bit about where you come from and what initially drew you to singing and to opera specifically. It is generally a cause for concern that interest in opera is waning and yet there are a number of unusually creative productions popping up in unexpected places. We lost Amato downtown but now we have Loft Opera in Brooklyn. What do you think the future of opera is and what do you imagine is your future in it?

I grew up in a small town in Michigan. My first musical interest was in blues and soul music, and I'm very in love with that music still. I sing in a variety of styles and am interested in the movement between them. My own songwriting tends towards something more quiet, melancholy, and torchy. Then there's the more theatrical and humorous side of my work. I came to opera through studying voice, first as a teenager. I was trying to sing in a big aggressive way and I would lose my voice after one song, so I started taking lessons. I became increasingly drawn to the discipline of classical voice, and the lyricism, and intensity of it all.

I actually sang at the Amato Opera. I recently wrote a short piece about it, in fact, which I haven't published or performed yet. That particular establishment couldn't have gone on and been the same without Tony Amato, who was at the heart of it, madly running the show. I think he may have wanted the company die with him, to be honest. I'd like to point out that the Amato didn't disappear because of gentrification--Tony owned the building--but you can still grieve the disappearance of the Amato and look at its disappearance as part of a larger loss happening in NYC, which is the death of character, the death of particularity.

I think your unconventional and slightly irreverent take on more traditional performance is fantastic. But at the same time you obviously have deep appreciation for the music. What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in the genre today?

I have to say, I'm interested in opera, but I am an outsider to that world. Sometimes I do enter the classical world as a singer: Next year I'll be performing a song cycle Aleksandra Vrebalov has written for me with texts of Charles Simic, for example. And I invoke and use opera in my own art. But I don't have any sort of mission, or delusion, of revitalizing the form. I approach it in the way that makes the most sense to me. Because I've performed my own arias--or faux arias as the case may be--in bars, in the art world, on TV and so on, some people will give me a lot of credit for using the form in a different way, or a different context, or exposing it to a different audience. But I don't claim that what I'm doing even is opera, or that it is not.

Now to your question, which is hard to answer because I'm not sure what an "opera" is in the 21st Century, or late 20th, or maybe to begin with! John Moran calls his elaborate soundscores and choreographies operas, and I think somehow they are. There are other great avant-garde auteurs of this ilk: Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley. Many composers of late, such as these, often don't employ classical voices. So there's some sort of bifurcation that has taken place, with opera going forward on one track via the voice and another through composition. Beth Morrison and the composers she represents seem to be creating all sorts of vital new works and seem poised to design the future of opera. People are very excited about the work they are doing and I think it's great. In general, I don't think that opera has the same role in our society that it did in its golden age, so I am not certain it should be burdened with the same responsibilities, at least not superficially.

Since we already related to the drama of Anna Nicole Smith via mass media I wonder if rendering her saga in the form of opera changes or deepens that story or our relationship to it. And perhaps the answer is yes-- I didn't see the Anna Nicole opera... heard lots of great things. This is simply a question I have. Of course I am of a school that is more "against grand narratives..." So in my work I just invoke the form, playfully, to heighten little narratives and direct observations of mine that tend toward the intimate, absurd, unresolved and obscure. Yet these episodes hold weight in my mind and extend out into much larger themes: work, nostalgia, language...


What do you think of Nico Muly and Mathew Aucoin?

I'm not any expert, but they don't seem to be a couple of slouches, do they? They're obviously both brimming with intelligence and talent. [The opera] Two Boys uses an interesting story that contains many familiar operatic themes--hidden identity, deception and desire, suicide--that unfold in way only possible in a digital age. The production at the Met did a good job, I thought, of "staging the Internet", which is not that easy to do.

You once said to me: "It's good to be deprived of technology. It poisons you." Can you explain what you mean by this?

Really? I have no idea what sort of curmudgeonly, conspiratorial kick I was on that day, but I was probably talking about screens and being online all the time. I'm miserably addicted to it all and maybe this is why I'm extra cantankerous, but I feel this constant obsession with screens has turned life into a circus of the underwhelming. I find it dispiriting. We're everywhere and nowhere, there's no mystery, there are no stakes. On the rare occasion that I have a couple days without constant access to the Internet, I can feel my head clear. Although I'm technically a millennial according to some recent designations--on the old end of millennial--my parents are late adapters when it comes to technology so I actually didn't have the Internet growing up and I remember the first time I spent more than a half an hour online. It made me nauseous. The digital age has been one long spell of nausea for me.

Some of the best art of the 2000s--I'm thinking particularly about visual work that formed an aesthetic based on the Internet and was able to articulate this new digital reality we were living in--some of this stuff that seemed profound and important five years ago now appears kitschy, flimsy, faddish, and almost quaint. Certain work that was intensely of the moment in the recent past has aged really fast. I don't know how to make sense of this, and I'm not naming names, but I think we're too enamored with digital technology in our daily lives. How can I be at once addicted to social media and think that's its the most boring thing imaginable? The Internet is an unglamorous addiction. Remember the day we all decided Myspace was suddenly disgusting and unmentionable? When the day before it had been everything to us? I keep waiting for humans to collectively just lose interest in the Internet, to decide it's passe and just get up and walk away.

What do you think are the elements of a production or performance (or any art work for that matter) that stand the test of time?

The best works have some mystery, an open space for the viewer to enter and exist, and seeing these works makes reality feel more alive. Often the best art is strangely incomplete. The great Hitchcock films play with perception and confront you with the unexplained so that you have to reckon with it in moments, whereas the lesser ones just feel confined to certain time and genre. They don't open up. I also notice that acute representations of alienation or ambivalence tend to carry well across time. I'm thinking of one of Bellini's paintings of Madonna and Child where she's looking at her baby, holding him out, and there's an uncertainty in her face. That uncertainty is so present. Or the way Sherwood Anderson's characters react uneasily to industrialization. This resonates right now in regards to the digital world. The strangely passionate disenchantment in Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. One final, odd example: there's a moment in the musical short St. Louis Blues, from the 20's where Bessie Smith seems uncomfortable being filmed. She seems to think acting is silly and I really feel her on that one. Literally, I feel her. Her breaking of character, her resistance and stiffness, doesn't take me, as a contemporary viewer, out of the film. On the contrary, she is no longer trapped in this old film, or in its acting style that appears so artificial to a 21st century eye. She becomes suddenly relatable and closer. I'm not sure this makes St. Louis Blues more of a masterpiece than it is or isn't, but there's a breaking, an opening, and somehow this relates to what I'm trying to articulate.


What do you enjoy doing when you're not singing?

Well obviously I spend a lot of time writing and creating performances. I have had precious little free time in the past few months. All summer I was in this show at Lincoln Center, eight times a week, and my social life amounted almost entirely to sitting on the roof with Chavisa Woods. But I liked sitting on that roof and, man, I was good at it, too.

Who are you listening to these days?

OK, the last couple days I've been listening to a bunch of different eras of Lucinda Williams, and also Exuma, James Booker: his work is not that known and should be way known. And the '80s band, Sex Gang Children.

Sex Gang Children! I haven't listened to them in years. Who do you think is the funniest person?

Fran Lebowitz is reliably amusing and more.

Describe your dream date...

I like that you started out tossing me questions that the ghost of Susan Sontag might struggle to answer and that now we've taken a turn into Tiger Beat territory.

You've perfectly described my M. O. in a nutshell.

I have enjoyed dates, but never fantasized about one. In general, I prefer dim, swampy environments though.

Mmm... swampy. What do you find irresistible in a man?

If I examine my history, it would appear that I am drawn towards keen, fussy beauties of a variety of genders. But believe me, these days I can resist anyone.

Ha! What are you saying? You are wary of romantic entanglements?

I was in a relationship for a few years and ending it broke my heart. I have been seeing people some -- and enjoying it. I like being alone, though, because it really allows me to listen to my inner voice. Mostly the voice tells me: Start smearing eyeblack across your cheeks in everyday life. I've never been an athlete, but I like that look. Future mates better like it too, because that's what they're getting.

Who is your dream collaborator?

I had a dream last night that I was staying with Prince. He was very elusive in his own home--his servants referred to him as "Stone" and never saw him. But Prince and I were having a heart-to-heart in some hidden den and he made it clear he was eager to collaborate with me as long as I would agree to change my name to "Gingerella." Well, I'd consider it.

Follow M. Sharkey on Instagram at msharkeystudio


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