Opera Philadelphia

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Let Me Die Creator's Note

By Joseph Keckler

“Are there deaths are in Kashchey the Deathless?” I asked madly, like someone talking in his sleep. “And how many?”

“It’s complicated,” replied my collaborator Matthew, holding an excerpt of Rimsky-Korsakov’s one-act in his hand. “Kashchey the deathless dies. His daughter is transformed into a weeping willow.”

“At least two, good – we’re short on immortals,” I nodded. “Hmmm, another consumptive sure would round things out.”

Sheet music surrounded us, scattered like the shed feathers of a huge traumatized bird. For weeks Matthew and I had rifled through 400-page scores, scavenging only death sequences we might weave into our morbid collage. In the face of the mess, Matthew insisted we make a spreadsheet that catalogued each extracted scene, specifying its originating opera, composer, language, the unfortunate character to whom the demise belonged, and of course an autopsy report: stabbed, self-immolated, poisoned, wasted, starved, drowned, buried alive, crushed in temple collapse, supernatural,and (rarely) natural causes. We rated and remarked upon each moment’s sonic beauty.

I was inspired to do this show for the following reasons: 

  1. Death is the beating heart of tragic opera.
  2. Death hovers around conversations about the form itself. “Opera is alive and well,” and so on.
  3. Copyright law allows us to do whatever we want in the present with material of a distant enough past, designated “public domain.” I wanted to celebrate this freedom.
  4. I usually write all my own material and imagined (wrongly) it would be faster and easier to feast on the corpuses of dead geniuses.
  5. These death scenes illuminate a paradox: depicting bodily failure, they’re often the most athletic vocal displays.
  6. When I started singing a voice teacher handed me an aria called “Lasciatemi Morire” or “Let Me Die,” a fragment of a lost opera. Is learning to sing learning to die? What if only the deaths in operas survived?
Photo and reasons

At the time of writing this, I don’t know what the cumulative effect of the collage will be. And moment to moment, will the deaths be deadened? Or made newly alive? Will the spectacle seem absurd, and how freshly so? Climax upon climax, how do you sustain a work that is constantly ending? Will it tip into ecstasy, catharsis, trouble, or exhaustion?  We might treat it like a sporting event where each loss is a win.

What do you want the audience to walk away with?  I have been asked. How about nothing? I think. I’m certain you’re carrying enough and I’d rather you leave something behind.

Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

This note appears in the O19 Festival Book

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