The world premiere production of Let Me Die, a new company commission, is a highlight of O19, the third edition of Opera Philadelphia’s annual season-opening festival. Presented in partnership with FringeArts as part of Philadelphia’s 2019 Fringe Festival, this genre-bending new performance piece showcases its creator, Joseph Keckler, recently described both as a singer and writer of “unnerving artistry … who hardly seems human” (The Observer) and as “an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed, … a gifted composer, poet and musician who uses his classically trained baritone in idiosyncratic contemporary material” (Opera News). Interspersing famous operatic death scenes with original video and Keckler’s own signature brand of comedic storytelling, Let Me Die underscores Opera Philadelphia’s commitment to providing extraordinary artists with opportunities to create their most imaginative and inspired work, serving as a reminder that the company is not only “one of the leading instigators of new work in the country” (Opera News), but also “one of American opera’s success stories” (New York Times).
“A major vocal talent … whose range shatters the conventional boundaries” (New York Times), Keckler began developing Let Me Die during residencies at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design and New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center. As Hyperallergic noted, after an early work-in-progress showing at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit: “What begins as funny becomes increasingly tragic. Keckler’s power as a singer and his commanding stage presence draw the audience out of the comedy of the work – but then he punctuates the drama with humorous commentary. … Keckler effectively demonstrates that opera and its mechanics require only the simplest of bridges to offer new insight into our condition of daily living.”
Named 2013’s Best Downtown Performance Artist in New York (Village Voice), Keckler has appeared at international venues including Paris’s Centre Pompidou, New York’s Lincoln Center, Austin’s SXSW festival and LA’s Adult Swim Festival, and looks forward to opening a concert run at London’s Soho Theatre this October. Also a writer, artist and humorist, his book, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World, was published by Turtle Point Press in 2017. As he explains, Let Me Die was inspired by an aria of that name: “When you start to study voice, one of the first songs that a lot of people are given, and I was given, is Lasciatemi morire, ‘Let Me Die.’ I like this idea that somehow if you’re a student of opera, of voice, you have to be sort of a student of dying. And that’s where I took the title of this from, that aria, which is also the only existing part of the Monteverdi opera. The rest of the opera has been lost, except for an extended sequence, the center of which is that aria, the lament of Ariadne, who is stranded on the island of Naxos. I liked that conceptual rhyming – that she is lost, bereft, stranded, and the aria also stranded. It has survived its own context. So, what if all the rest of the operas were lost, but all the deaths survived?”
About the death scenes featured in his new work, Keckler adds: “Well, there are a lot of old chestnuts, a lot of favorites, a lot of greatest hits in there. … We’re going into weird corners of the repertoire to pull out certain moments as well. … The scenes are alternately – or sometimes simultaneously – sublime and absurd. That’s my jam. As for what he hopes audiences will take away from Let Me Die, he deadpans: “Nothing. To the contrary, I hope they leave something behind.”
For the world premiere production of his performance piece, Keckler reunites with dramaturg and director Elizabeth Gimbel, praised for her “poetic direction” (Village Voice) of his earlier works Cat Lady, Human Jukebox and the recent, critically acclaimed Train With No Midnight. He will be joined on stage by soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith, as seen in Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere productions of The Wake World and Sky on Swings; countertenor Darius Elmore, a George Shirley Vocal Competition semi-finalist; and mezzo-soprano Natalie Levin, whose credits include Santa Fe Opera, Virginia Opera, and Carnegie Hall; with a guest appearance by “startlingly precise” dancer (New York Times) Saori Tsukada, a two-time Dublin Fringe Festival Best Actress nominee. Like Keckler himself, Elmore, Levin and Tsukada will all be making company debuts, as will musical arranger Matthew Dean Marsh, a regular collaborator of Keckler’s, whose work has been heard at Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Madison Square Garden, and the White House. Let Me Die also features sound design by Isaac Levine, lighting design by Evelyn Shuker, and original video design by FringeNYC Award-winner Lianne Arnold.