Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19, part IV: Death Becomes Him

I attended the premiere of bass-baritone Joseph Keckler’s Let Me Die on September 21, one of the events in Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19.  I still do not know what to call it: an opera event, a music theater piece, performance art; or as OP stated, this “ensemble performance collage is at once a festive meditation, strange ritual, and morbid medley of epic proportions”.  I prefer to think of it as academic opera, in this case, exploring opera for underlying meaning in operatic death scenes, with insights and case-supporting snippets of operas. 

Joseph Keckler, creator of  Let Me Die . Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Joseph Keckler, creator of Let Me Die. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Let Me Die was cosponsored by Philadelphia’s Fringe Arts as part of their 2019 festival.  The Fringe Arts mission is to expose “audiences to genre-defying dance, theater, and music performances by accomplished and emerging innovators who push the boundaries of art-making and redefine the artistic landscape worldwide.”  The two festivals are indeed complementary.

Mr. Keckler gives several reasons for his interest in opera death scenes, perhaps most amusing is that he was born on the anniversary of the Day of the Dead, but most germane is his training in singing opera.  As a student he was required to learn “Lasciatemi morire” (in English, “Let me die”), an aria that survived from a lost Monteverdi opera.  His takeaway lesson from the experience was that to sing opera is to die.  I wish he had thought more deeply about that.  His collaborator and arranger for Let Me Die is Matthew Dean Marsh.  This work was developed as part of Keckler’s residency at University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design; its academic roots were also in evidence as a list of references was distributed to the audience prior to the performance.

Joseph Keckler. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Joseph Keckler. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Let Me Die is based on a viable premise for skits: death scenes are crucial to opera, and viewed out of context, they are edgy and easy prey for humor.  He asserts that they are the most important part of an opera, the scene we all wait for, an assertion mildly amusing for fun, but a stretch too far if he is serious.  I am usually waiting for the scene where the soprano sings my favorite aria; I tend to only look forward to the death scene when it is the bad guy getting his comeuppance.  But Mr. Keckler collects these scenes and categorizes them and presents them to his audience one after another, sort of a “Keckler’s Catalog of Death by Opera”, again a mildly amusing basis for a stand-up routine and maybe a neat coffee-table book or a good date-night presentation on a college campus.  He mentioned that three-quarters of opera death scenes had women dying; that might have been more meaningfully explored.  Throughout the 90-minute performance, Lavinia Pavlish on violin and William Kim on piano contributed expertly to the production; they even had their own death scene.

Mr. Keckler then goes a step further by wondering what the cumulative effect might be of viewing a production consisting of only opera death scenes, removing the extraneous material and getting, in his words, right to the good stuff.  When he presented this hypothesis, I wondered whether it indeed might have a cumulative effect; he still had me at that point.  I think, however, he failed to properly consider that catalogs are only interesting for so long, especially if the viewer doesn’t connect with that many of the items in the catalog.  The lyrics lost much of their sting separate from their lead ups. As the evening wore on, my interest waned.  Based on my wife’s response, it was clear that the waning of interest for this performance was proportional to how many of the operas you knew and could identify; she is not an opera fan to the extent that I am and got bored.  For me, deaths without their lead ups was just a pile-up of disparate corpses for whom we knew or mostly knew the names, and no other meaning surfaced.  The exercise grew tedious after awhile. The audience was expected to be familiar with opera, but that also means a knowledgeable audience is expecting to learn or experience something new about opera, a high bar. 

l to r : Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante, and Natalie Levin. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

l to r: Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante, and Natalie Levin. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

To begin the performance, Mr. Keckler came out and without comment, stepped up on a chair, spotlight now shining on his face; he sang the last couple of lines of Tosca in falsetto, and jumped off the chair, collapsing on the floor.  The opening was funny enough with a slap stick appeal, plus Mr. Keckler has a dramatic presence and rather a beautiful voice.  I wonder why he has not focused his career on singing opera; on the hand, if he wants to be a professor, I’d happily take his class.  He then tried a few jokes and went through a few more death scenes, throwing in some songs of his own.  His singing and antics held my interest during his monologue, always wondering what might come next.  Unexpectedly, he then spun the lectern around, revealing it was lined in coffin fashion, and he laid down for the remainder of the program (and ouch, bumping his head on the make-shift coffin); even that was mildly amusing for a while.  I expected his repose to be brief, but it lasted for the remainder (majority) of the program; his participation was missed.

Natalie Levin, Veronica Chapman-Smith, and Augustine Mercante. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Natalie Levin, Veronica Chapman-Smith, and Augustine Mercante. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Three singers, mezzo-soprano Natalie Levin, soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith, and countertenor Augustine Mercante, came out as reinforcements to continue the march of death scenes, this time with arias grouped into categories, such as icons, couples, and witches.  Grouping them didn’t seem to add much meaning; it might have helped if Mr. Keckler had revived to add some context.  At this point it seemed a game of name that tune or aria.  The singers’ costumes were colorful and identified the performers, but otherwise made no apparent connection to the proceedings; one could get catty about the costumes.  The singers moved about and mimed some stage action, which added a bit of visual interest.  The vignettes came and went before I could emotionally connect with the scenes.  Still, about ten minutes into this group’s medley, I started to just enjoy the singing, and I thank them for that; evidently, the human voices were making a connection, but I think to opera, not death.  The ending involved dancer Saori Tsukada appearing as death (?), gracefully walking across the stage, killing the remaining singers and musicians with a wave of her hand, and finally approaching the audience for an anticlimactic finish (maybe next time have her wave her hand and drop black confetti from the ceiling onto the audience); again, I felt that Mr. Keckler should have been there at the ending to tie it all together – it’s his show.  A professor friend of mine says that when he lectures, he tells them what he is going to say; then he says it, and then, he tells them what he said.  Performance art may need a non-verbal equivalent.

O19 was another huge success for Opera Philadelphia.  Three of the four events I attended were stellar, and all of them maintained my opinion of Opera Philadelphia as an opera leader, perhaps the opera leader in the US today. Anticipating O19, I was curious about Let Me Die, and I’m glad I got to see it. In fact, I enjoyed it as an event, even though I don’t think it lived up to its promise. Mr. Keckler himself still shows promise.  Even if my response to Let Me Die is that it didn’t measure up, I am pleased that Opera Philadelphia/Fringe Arts gave Mr. Keckler the opportunity to further develop his work and present it.  OP must take chances in order to let opera evolve.  Some avenues are not going to pan out, and that’s okay.  In fact, it is more than okay; it is critical to the encouragement of the next generation of creative artists. 

The Fan Experience:  Festival O19, five different productions over twelve days, ran September 18-29.  This is part IV of my reports on four events I attended, part I on Semele, part II on The Love of Three Oranges, and part III on Denis & Katya

Let Me Die started 15 minutes late; I wanted to start a chant, “we’re dying out here.”  For this event, we changed hotels and stayed at the Holiday Inn Penn Landing which is adjacent to the Fringe Arts Theatre and made it convenient to hop on I95 South the next morning, an excellent choice.

The dates for Festival O20 have already been posted: September 17-27, 2020.  Block those off on your calendar now.  I’ve attended parts of O17, O18, and O19 and loved them all.  The festival events will likely be announced in early 2020.  Philadelphia is a great city to visit just for the food, historical sights, and the arts.