Fringe Arts’ high-ceilinged theater – with its stadium-style seats and white-painted-brick upstage wall, and three large windows overlooking the outdoor bar/restaurant – may not be what traditional opera-goers expect, but it was perfect for singer/composer/performance artist Joseph Keckler’s Let Me Die, a world premiere presented jointly by Fringe Arts for its 2019 Fringe Festival and Opera Philadelphia as part of Festival O19, its third annual September series. The floor was covered in wide front-to-back red and black stripes, a grand piano and bench stood mid-stage right, a pair of candlesticks on the floor in front of it, the violinist’s chair and stand beside it. An elegant yet simple pale armchair was center-stage, to its left a lectern. Altogether, the basic scenic picture was striking yet unobtrusive. A printed “List of Quoted Works” showed that the topic of operatic death(s) would be represented by the expected (Bohème, Traviata, Ballo, Otello, Werther and so on) and the unexpected, such as Satie’s Socrate, an unfamiliar touching side of the composer.

Joseph Keckler in Let Me Die.
© Johanna Austin

Keckler, tall and lanky with slightly tousled short dark hair and soulful eyes, in black high-collared jacket, pants and boots, mike in hand, grabbed attention immediately by intoning Tosca’s “Ah, Scarpia, avanti a Dio” and jumping off the chair. Thus began Act 1, with snippets of death scenes ranging from Rodrigo’s in Don Carlo to Manon’s in both the Puccini and Massenet versions. For me the best was Keckler as both Manrico and Leonora, while Azucena and the orchestra were interpreted by violin (Lavinia Pavlish) and piano (William Kim), both excellent. A trained opera singer himself, student of tenor George Shirley, Keckler has a rich bass-baritone voice and a falsetto of almost countertenor level – and charisma.

The rest of the first half was a lecture-recital in which Keckler spoke, mostly at the podium, of the variants on operatic demise that have been the center of his attention for some time, singing examples. Perhaps, as he told the story (how much in jest?) the seed was sown when, born on the Mexican Day of the Dead, he developed a predilection for dancing skeletons, while another childhood amusement was to stage tricycle accidents and wait for passersby to ask if he was alright.

Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante and Natalie Levin
© Johanna Austin

The inspiration for his current project, he explained, was years of regarding death as the common denominator, even the crux, of many operas, adding: “I don’t like death, but I like fake death, and opera is the best for it” and thinking it could be “fun for me to die over and over onstage – and possibly fun for you.” The show’s title is English for Monteverdi’s aria “Lasciatemi morire” (“the one that you get at your first voice lesson”), all that is left of the 1608 opera Arianna (he wondered what if only a fragment existed of many other operas). Some of his comments were intriguing, others witty, some requiring development, modification or even deletion: still a work-in-progress.

Considering Keckler’s sensitivity and intellect (he has had residencies at Yaddo and MacDowell), I was shocked to hear him say that the onstage death of the great baritone Leonard Warren made him a performance artist. Much more appropriate would have been to point out the eerie fact that Warren’s last sung line was “Morir, tremenda cosa” – to die is a dreadful thing. Also unworthy of the material was a silly take on the preparations for Seneca’s death in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

Veronica Chapman-Smith and Augustine Mercante in Let Me Die
© Johanna Austin

Concluding the evening’s lecture aspect, Keckler turned the lectern on its back and into a half-coffin, inside of which he lay, his legs sticking out, for Act 2 of the 80-minute-long show. In categories of Icons, Couples, Witches (Azucena and Medea legit, Kostelnicka and Elektra not: why them?), Men and Last Lines, the operatic excerpts were appropriated by three singers: strong, expressive soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith; sometimes shrill mezzo Natalie Levin, and fine young countertenor Augustine Mercante, in distinctive, colorful costumes by Diego Montoya. They all interpreted both male and female roles: some gender variations worked better than others. One that did, surprisingly, was the (silent) image of tall, stolid Mercante as Butterfly’s child, with Levine as Pinkerton, in this case arriving in time to see Butterfly die (Chapman-Smith, very moving). Others were Levine as Riccardo in Ballo, Mercante as Werther, all three as Seneca’s despairing friends in the repeated “Non morir, Seneca,” compensating for the Act 1 approach, and as Don Giovanni, Leporello and the Commendatore: proof of the strength of the music and words even in the “wrong” voices.

In addition to Montoya, Keckler’s talented collaborators included director Elizabeth Gimbel, arranger Matthew Dean Marsh, and lighting designer Evelyn Swift Shuker.