PHILADELPHIA — A suicidal Madame Butterfly bids farewell to her son, who morphs into Otello and murders Desdemona twice while singing snippets of Rossini and Verdi. The Tomb Scene from "Aida" segues to Rusalka giving her prince the kiss of death. Then Romeo and Juliet die in each other's arms.
And so it goes in "Let Me Die," an 80-minute genre- and gender-bending work created by performance artist Joseph Keckler and having its world premiere as part of Opera Philadelphia's third annual festival.
The show is part rapid-fire compilation of some of Keckler's favorite death scenes and part whimsical philosophical inquiry into why death and dying seem central to many people's experience of opera.
"I thought it would be interesting, kind of perverse and funny, to put all these deaths together, since it's the event that people wait for in opera," Keckler said in an interview last week in the converted church where he was rehearsing. "So what if we did it right away and over and over again?"
He said he had long been fascinated by the fact that "people talk about opera in terms of death. They say 'Opera is dying,' or 'The audiences are dying,' or, 'New composers are breathing new life into the art form.'"
Keckler studied voice with tenor George Shirley at the University of Michigan and might well have become an opera singer. But once he moved to New York and began "compulsively writing and creating my own things," he said he found the idea of a traditional opera career "too confining."
In his show, which is being presented in partnership with FringeArts as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival, Keckler will perform two songs he wrote. One, titled "The Opera Pirate," recounts his experiences working for a man who sold bootleg opera recordings. "I would sit there day after day copying CDs," Keckler recalled. "It was utterly banal and also dramatic at the same time."
But "Let Me Die" is far from a one-man extravaganza. He is supported by a dancer and three other singers accompanied by a pianist and violinist. The vocal parts are, perhaps not surprisingly, unusually fluid: With the help of "octave transpositions," the counter-tenor sings both Otellos but also the soprano role of Tosca; the soprano sings Butterfly but also Carmen's tenor lover Don Jose; and the mezzo-soprano sings the Commendatore in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," a role written for a bass.
Keckler's title — "Lasciatemi morire" in the original Italian — harkens back to the very beginnings of opera, to an aria that Claudio Monteverdi wrote for "L'arianna," first performed in 1608 but now lost except for that one number.
"The fact of that aria being the only extant part of the opera felt very poetic to me," he said. "So it's like, Ariadne is stranded on an island, and it's a death song. But the aria is also stranded from its own opera. The double stranding. I thought: What if only the deaths from every opera survived?"
"Let Me Die" is one of four works that make up this year's festival, which runs Sept. 18-29. There's another world premiere, "Denis & Katya" with music by Philip Venables and libretto by Ted Huffman, and two relative rarities new to the company: Handel's "Semele" and Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges."