Self-Portraits in Song: An Interview with Joseph Keckler
April 2, 2018
Joseph Keckler

Joseph Keckler’s Self-Portrait as an Opera (at OBERON April 5, 2018) presents colorful episodes from his own life—a trip on hallucinogens, an expedition to the bondage store, and more—in operatic form. Here, Joseph speaks with A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley about the roots of this interdisciplinary work.

What can audience members expect to experience in this show?

An introduction to my world, which I intend to be pleasurable. A theatrical concert incorporating humorous monologues, vignettes, video work, and some of my absurdist autobiographical arias. I’ll use my voice in different ways throughout the show. I put “Opera” in the title, but a few songs have little to do with opera—they’re more like pop songs, melancholy ballads.

That spirit of experimentation across genres is very in keeping with other works included in the GLOWBERON series (OBERON’s partnership with Provincetown’s Afterglow Festival, which has also featured John Kelly, Justin Vivian Bond, Marga Gomez, and others). Thinking about the title of this show, Self-Portrait as an Opera, what does it mean for you to make a portrait, which might typically be thought of as a visual form, in music?

You know, I view myself as a kind of translator. I’m always moving from one medium to another, and, in a way, I am rooted in visual art since I started out as a painter, so I think a lot about what I do as being grounded in portraiture. I often write vignettes and essays about other people, colorful characters I know. So these are essentially written portraits. And when I’m working on a performance that uses myself, partly as medium and partly as subject, I also view that as having to do with portraiture.

That exercise, of transposing some experience I had or some observation that I made about the world around me into an operatic medium, is a hybrid expression. I’m using personal narrative, but I’m channeling it through a form with a lot of history and gravitas—a form that comes with all sorts of other associations.

The stories included in these particular operatic self-portraits are an interesting mix of experiences—from experimentation with drugs to coming-of-age episodes. What does it mean to tell individual, contemporary stories through this historically grand form?

It’s not that I’m trying to animate or exaggerate the mundane; for me, invoking a grand form lends the material a sense of drama that I’ve experienced in daily life. And this heightened form is equipped to do that.

For example, take my “Shroom Aria”—which is my “hit.” Although the drug trip is relegated to the realm of juvenile delinquency or something very laughable, I think that that experience, at the same time, can be a kind of journey to the underworld. It can also be a consciousness-shattering experience. It can be transformative, enlightening, or dangerous. And that’s not totally accounted for in the way it’s usually represented in popular culture. If I’m pulling opera a little out of its high cultural territory, and also yanking the drug trip narrative out of its typically juvenile, trivial territory, this is not for its own sake, but because I’m trying to tell some truth.

That’s very interesting. In that sense, I wonder if you see yourself in proximity to some of the 18th and 19th century composers who, in many respects, were writing music about (and writing music for) everyday situations, and the elevation of their music has come in later cultural periods.

Classical music in general is regarded as exotic and rarefied in American culture, so that is true. And I’m trying to play with that. Opera is almost like a character in my work—it’s not just the form, but also the public perception of that form. I end up toying with those historical and cultural dynamics of what is high and low, what’s old and new, and so on.

What role does humor play in the act of placing contemporary, comedic stories alongside classical vocal technique?

In some of the arias, “the joke” is the juxtaposition itself—the language in combination with the music. If you read those lines on the page, they aren’t very funny, and often the music is actually using kind of melancholy progressions. But I have to resist being seen only as a “funny opera singer.” That could become gimmicky very quickly. I’m working in a different way, a way that’s all about a kind of movement—movement through different realms, vocally, textually, and contextually.

That makes sense. The last question I have today is about audiences—what role does the audience play in this piece?

I address the audience directly. In certain pieces, there’s a fourth wall, but it usually evaporates or is knocked over fairly quickly. Even in the arias, the words are scripted, and I’m channeling them through a particular form, but I’m still telling a story directly to the audience, so their presence is very much invited.

A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley
Publication date:
April 2, 2018

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