Keckler at the Gowanus Ballroom. Photo courtesy of Gerry Visco.
The first time I encountered the enigmatic voice of Joseph Keckler was at the Chocolate Factory for an installment of the Catch Performance series. Nearing the end of the informal, cabaret-style show, Keckler quietly walked on stage to perform a seven minute excerpt from a performance-in-process called I am an Opera, the completed version of which will play at Joe’s Pub on July 8. I remember that I was sitting on a hard, tin bleacher. The artists from the previous performances were downstairs, talking loudly and working off their adrenaline by drinking cheap beer from a keg. It was loud, casual, a familial gathering. Keckler began his performance by addressing the audience in a very colloquial, nearly apathetic tone. He told us some mundane story from his day, chock full of minute, conversational details.
Keckler laughed as I recounted this moment over brunch recently and said, “I’m not afraid of being boring.” Which made it all that more surprising when, after that “boring” prelude, he opened his mouth and began to sing a breathtaking aria. He sang in low, bold Italian with English subtitles projected onto a screen behind him. Instantly, I felt like Jonah or Pinocchio being unwittingly swallowed by the whale. Keckler’s transition from the initial, improvised structure into a very formal, operatic structure was jarring to say the least. For the next seven minutes, he worked methodically to juxtapose and seamlessly combine the grandiosity of the opera with his more personal, pedestrian, and muted style of storytelling, something like the late great Klaus Nomi, but with a more understated, coy, and dry-witted theatricality about him.
“I like the drama and the discipline of opera,” Keckler says matter-of-factly. Typically, a lot happens in a classical opera. Worlds are upended and kingdoms toppled. But in a stark and purposeful contrast to this expectation, I am an Opera unfolds without much actually happening. The piece is framed as an internal monologue, a memory of a bad mushroom trip that Keckler had in the early 2000’s. “I work a lot from personal and autobiographical experiences,” he says. In fact, the “events” of the piece happen almost entirely inside of his thoughts and memories. “My work is not made up of events, but rather a series of inclinations,” he told me. Thus, as viewers, we are asked to exist inside the narrator’s mind, as Jonah lives inside the whale, and to follow him on his incredibly subtle and introspective journey. Keckler’s voice transports and transforms us even though there are no “actual” events to move us through the performance. It is an exquisite exercise in operatic abstraction.
In I am an Opera, Keckler gives pride of place to form and craft in this contemporary, avant-garde, “anti-performance” performance. He is a mediator of sorts, existing comfortably in what he calls the “interstitial space between forms.” As the consummate, interdisciplinary, performance artist, Keckler has intentionally embedded contemporary content/context (young, 20-something man accidentally eats too many chocolate-covered mushrooms with his friends at a party and then goes home by himself where he is overwhelmed by hallucinations and flashbacks that derive from various applications on his Mac laptop), into a classical, nearly antiquated form. It is a contemporary subject presented with a classical method. Yet within this framework, Keckler is able to evade camp and kitsch. He never mocks or fetishizes opera, nor his role as a classically trained opera singer. Rather, he believes in opera. He is opera. Keckler plays and experiments without compromising the integrity or composition of the forms that he is employing and it is this commitment that adds an element of rigor and sincerity to his performances.
I am an Opera simultaneously deconstructs and re-animates the operatic form, making it contemporary, relevant, and even urgent. Joseph is possessed by the demand and discipline of high art while continuously locating himself in prosaic realities. In this way, his work is both an elevation and a grounding. Celestial archetypes meet quotidian anti-heroes, all within the insularity of the narrator’s discursive thoughts. This alchemy of high/medium/low art subject matter elicits particular emotional responses from audiences. The sheer, visceral gravity of the aria overlapping with its irreverent content caused me to laugh hysterically while simultaneously giving me the chills that only a bravura performance can. In this way, I am an Opera operates both as a formal materialization and as a conceptual dematerialization, creating a palpable fissure that allows for new experiences and subjectivities to emerge. I can feel all of these potentialities arise (like my neck hairs) during the piece. It is a new and exhilarating sensation.
Joseph Keckler will perform this Sunday, July 8, at Joe’s Pub.