Joseph Keckler’s new show at Dixon Place is called I am an Opera, and when I ask him if the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he deadpans, “My title states a simple fact. I was born an opera. Society has just got to deal with that.” As a writer, a painter and a downtown New York habitué, Keckler has made his Johnny Depp-meets-Lily Tomlin presence felt on stages and in galleries, at Joe’s Pub and at old-fashioned happenings, in monologues and video collages that mix and match disciplines with measured abandon.
Humor bubbles up in a lot of his work, but Keckler is also capable of swoony romanticism, which often comes out in his unusually flexible singing voice. “On a good day I can warm up my so-called legit voice, my bass-baritone, over the span of three octaves—roughly low A to high A,” says Keckler. “But I wouldn’t be able to rely on the top or bottom of that range in a performance. If I switch into my untrained falsetto voice, then I have a few more notes on top. In pop you’re allowed to count those notes, too. It’s true that I am rangy, as we say in the biz.” (He uses that falsetto voice to memorably lyric effect in his recent song “The Ride,” a video for which is on YouTube.)
Asked about opera, Keckler says, “I like the sensuality of the sound, the suspension of disbelief required of the viewer. I’m attracted to the sense of fatalism in tragic opera, the sense that once it has begun, this opera will deliver its characters to their fates like a train that can’t stop. I think opera is having a resurgence right now in this country, despite the fact that many people think of it as a dead form. There’s an almost necromantic interest in opera right now among the public and all sorts of different artists, I think.”
Speaking of the difference between the various forms he works in, Keckler says, “Well, the trouble with theater is that it constantly wants to storm in and hang quotation marks like two pairs of soggy long johns on either side of the stage. I don’t paint often now, but it’s not hard for me to view my writing and performance as being rooted in visual traditions of portraiture, self-portraiture, collage. I have learned this past year that the same piece can be read as visual art performance, music, theater, and comedy, depending on the context or venue.”
He’s very excited about this particular show and this particular blend. “I have a set of interests and skills, and those get shuffled around depending on the project,” Keckler says. “One often moves to the fore. This show I’m doing right now is a combination of everything—songwriting, singing, art, writing.” While rehearsing, he is also doing plenty of other things: “Right now I am also revising a collection of stories and essays. And recording a pop song with my mom.”
Photo by Gian Maria Annovi