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It's not every day you hear about an anti-opera opera about a bad shroom trip. But vocalist, actor, writer, performance artist and storyteller-of-all-trades Joseph Keckler is going where few classically trained opera singers have gone before, prying the sometimes stale medium from its traditional roots and plunking it into the contemporary WiFi connected landscape.
"I Am An Opera" began as an eight minute aria, which combined the grandiose formality of the medium with a storyline that one might casually recount to his buddies over brunch. In the anti-operatic opera, Keckler recalls eating too many mushrooms and experiencing a night of horrifying, though humorous in retrospect, hallucinations. There is schizophrenic skipping between present and memory, reality and hallucination, high and low art, resulting in a transcendent in-betweenness that brings Keckler into a performance category all his own.
Keckler then extended his original aria into a full-length opera, dubbed "part satire, part self-portrait and part aesthetic exorcism" in an email to the Huffington Post. The original drug trip narrative is joined by other banal and beautiful anecdotes. Combining the intensely personal with the theatrical and artificial, Keckler operates on the mechanics of opera, bringing them back to life and relevance. We spoke to Keckler to learn more about his unusual craft and upcoming show.
Scroll down for videos of Keckler's past performances.
HP: What are you trying to say with "I Am An Opera"? Why does it matter?
JK: I kind of work through different mediums as an artist. I was trained as a visual artist and an opera singer, and I've worked as a musician and also as a text-based performer. I've written a lot of essays and stories that I've later performed, that started as strange monologues. They were all sort of back and forth between media.
There were times when I was doing an opera and it turned into more of a performance piece. About three years ago I was doing a piece that was all about jobs that I've had in the New York art world. I guess you could call them monologues. There was this one job I had working for a man who sold bootleg opera recordings and I thought this should be an absurd aria. And I really, really liked that mode. So I started writing more and more, and synthesized everything I was doing before.
I don't consider myself a proper composer, but I wrote this aria about a frightening 'shroom trip I had a few years ago when I was possessed by demons and thought about cutting out my voice box. That is one of the center pieces for this larger piece. It sort of expands this idea of a trance, or a trip. A lot of my work is like a memory theater, in that there is an autobiographical element, an exploration of memory. The 'shroom trip was like an explosion of memory, it is very fractal in form. From there it goes into other formats -- this voice teacher character appears and she is trapped in a silent film. We are trying to have a dialogue but we are existing in different art forms.
The interview continues below.
HP: Was there anything particular challenge with "I Am An Opera" that you hadn't faced with earlier performances?
JK: It is one thing to do an eight-minute aria about a 'shroom trip, but extending this operatic mode over an hour is difficult. Before I relied so heavily on text and so I can slightly control the meaning, but this is much more abstract. The director and I are trying to -- sometimes it feels like good nonsense and sometimes it feels like bad nonsense. It also involves juggling a lot of different elements and conventions which is difficult. Do we treat this as a play or as an installation in time? There is a lot of juggling.
HP: I've heard your work characterized as "ghostlike." Would you agree?
JK: It is a recurring theme for me and I certainly am trying to revisit these scenarios and trying to reconstruct them as I narrate them. And so it is kind of like I am assuming a ghostlike position, I am trying to re-inhabit these uninhabitable past experiences. Also, I have always been kind of goth.
HP: Which artists are you obsessed with or influenced by?
JK: I wouldn't say that I am influenced in the artist John Kelly and later becoming friends with him. I like his whole project, his whole interdisciplinary approach. I feel like his existence made me feel a sense of permission. But I wouldn't say I am an influenced by him in any kind of direct way.
HP: What was the lowest point in your career so far?
JK: It was a low point, in a way, coming to New York and making audio guides at the Guggenheim for $8 and eating eggs all the time. It was exciting but it was very difficult. Financially, it was very difficult.
HP: A press statement said you were "remaking opera for the YouTube generation." Do you spend a lot of time on YouTube?
JK: I like watching singers on YouTube -- I like watching old blues singers and opera singers.
HP: How would your childhood art teacher describe you?
JK: I was very creative as a child from a very early age. Quiet, but sometimes sassy. And I liked to do body art. I would put clothes pins all over my body when I was five. And sometimes I would stage tricycle accidents. It was nice, it was clearly defined, I had rules. When the car stopped and someone asked if I was okay, the performance was over.
"I am an Opera," created and performed by Joseph Keckler and directed by Uwe Mengel, will play at Dixon Place in New York various dates in April.
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