Lighten up

I am an opera

Joseph Keckler performs I am an Opera at Amsterdam Fringe

I’m gonna risk the wrath of a nation here: America takes itself too seriously. South Africa, on the other hand, doesn’t take itself seriously enough.

But let’s stick to America for the moment. Being an uncontested economic and military superpower for seven decades or more has left the national ego a tad inflated, withering irony and self-reflection to the point of appearing to be a rarity even in the arts, which is arguably the last bastion of self-reflection outside of therapy.

I admit that on the surface I’m letting this arrow fly from a bow constructed of only two shows being performed at the Amsterdam Fringe, but America has been so successful in spreading itself around the world that there’s no need to ever visit the States to be pretty well educated in its cultural production.

Take rock ‘n roll as an example. Back in the day of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard et al, when the US was a little less sure of itself, it was music that shook your booty, and while songs spanned the entire gamut of emotional experience, a strong element of unadulterated fun ran through them, a natural evolution from the African-American blues and gospel in which singers made fun of their own despair (beating anyone else to the punch) and also celebrated the fact they were alive.

Fast forward that evolution to the metal-tinged hard rock of now and you’ve got entire albums filled with the plaintive aggression of spoilt teenagers whining about how kak life is because they just don’t know what to do with themselves. Terminal existentialism that seeks no way out ’cause self pity just feels so good.

Which is kind of what New York-based band Odysseus Finn’s Distraction is the Devil sounded like. Admittedly, the only lyric I manged to make out in their hour-long show, which amounted to a small rock concert with cool visuals, was ‘man at sea’ (visuals of ships heaving their way through gigantic seas helped), but plaintive hard rock was what I heard.

Look, it’s clear I’m not a great fan of that particular genre of  music. But if they were playing the sort jazz that makes me smile and throw a hip, I admit I might be crowing their praises.

They are accomplished. They play plaintive metal-tinged hard rock very well. The projections thrown across them and onto the screen are absorbing. I particularly enjoyed the ships in storm seas. There’s also the usual: time lapses of budding plants, ripples, racing clouds, fungi and microscopy. But given most of us do waste too much time on YouTube, we’ve seen it before and it amounts to not much more than really cool screen savers at triple speed.

Problem is, they’re billed as: “Music, Theatre, Interactive technology, Immersive performance, Narrative concert.” Of theatre and narrative I found none. As for Interactive technology and Immersive performance, those are very fuzzy terms. This web page right here is ‘interactive technology’ and I’ve felt more immersed when dancing in the living room with a Chuck Berry recording at full volume on the stereo.

They said they wanted to “disrupt any still space that may still exist” inside me. They didn’t. Perhaps my meditation habit is paying off. Their webpage also states they “employ an epic mythos” in their “musical storytelling of revolutionary ideas”. Perhaps, if we could make out the lyrics.

What ultimately left that “still space” inside me untouched was the complete lack of humour. At least none I could discern.


Which thankfully was not the case in the other American production I watched, I am an Opera.

Operatically trained bass baritone Joseph Keckler turns the deep tradition of opera to elucidate one of the worst days of his life – the shroom trip of 2007.

Singing in different languages as he covers different subjects – French for sex, German for bondage, Italian for food – he takes on a rambling tour of his subconscious in which his voice coach (the unseen person in every opera) acts as therapist to his depressed, disassociated gothic teenage self.

We start off with his breakfast of Oreo cookies and end up with a dead Minotaur, which is a lot more Homeric than Odysseus Finn, and is also why I initially had the titles mixed up in my notebook.

In fact, if Distraction is the Devil was titled I am an Opera it would open a whole new perspective on their show.

But I am an Opera, despite its humour, takes itself too seriously by not taking itself seriously enough. That sounds contradictory but I get the impression Keckler doesn’t really care that he often stands in shadow, or that the lighting, even if he were standing in it, is simply bloody awful. Because, Art, you know.

It’s a case of misplaced emphasis, where the audience’s desire to actually see the performer, to be engaged, is forgotten in a fit of artistic solipsism. Which also leads to problems in pace about two-thirds in when the combination of terrible green and blue lighting and incredibly slow enunciation drag us through our protaganist’s travails. Fortunately I was roused from impending sleep by the magnificent Minotaur.

Programme notes and bookings for Distraction is the Devil here and I am an Opera here
You can also book at the Fringe Hub at Jacob van Lennepkade 334.

Steve Kretzmann

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