The Contemporary Arts Center’s inaugural performing arts festival, “This Time Tomorrow”, featured almost thirty acts over four days in April. Spread out over Cincinnati and into Covington, the festival aimed to unite a community of patrons in time and place. Curator of the event Drew Klein wrote “[performance’s] ephemeral nature requires a presence, an assembly, an interaction.”
Perhaps the most grounded in the traditional sense of the performing arts was Joseph Keckler, an operatic vocalist who delivers dry and wryly composed arias in a cabaret style setting. Keckler seems unjustly gifted with both a phenomenal vocal abilty and the musical and comedic chops to weld humor with musically impeccable compositions. The arias were delivered in Italian, German and English and satirized millennial life, office politics and the influence of technology upon modern relationships.
Keckler began with “Apocalypse”, a cutting insight into the Brooklyn hedonists who used the imagined 2012 ending of Earth as an excuse to indulge in their desires and were ultimately cheated by “the apocalypse we wanted, and did not get”, set to a backing track of a dirge-like electric organ. His dark streak continued with “The Ride” in which Keckler imagines Death is an Uber driver who unexpectedly shows up to whisk him away to a strange town (he substituted Hamilton for rural New Jersey in Cincinnati).
“The Ride” is so melodically gorgeous and beautifully sung that the Robert Frost and Emily Dickenson themes are well sugar coated. Keckler’s voice brings to mind fellow young vocalist Sam Smith; though Keckler is a tenor with a three octave range—his command of dynamics and pitch control are outstanding.
“Shroom Trip Opera” is an aria in Italian and accompanied by piano. It details Keckler’s frightening journey home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after ingesting psychedelic mushroom laced cookies at an underground party. The subject matter juxtaposed with an entirely traditional operatic setting is extremely refreshing to jaded musical ears.
Moving to German, Keckler’s “Goth Song” is another aria in which he follows his relapse from a modern Manhattan office worker to the vinyl clothing seeking Goth persona of his youth as he wanders St Marl’s place. He wonders why even as a teen he was “nostalgic for someone else’s youth”.
Keckler closed his set with an entirely beautiful and cabaret inspired take on Screamin Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”. Keckler performs on piano himself for the first time in the show, and is extraordinary in his ability to hold vocal notes while playing a contrapuntal keyboard phrase.
Keckler describes himself as a “restrained observer” and within the boundaries of “This Time Tomorrow”, he may have been, from a distance, the most traditional performer. But his talent surely doesn’t fit within any single box, and his ability to meld opera, comedy and absurdity into an irresistible spectacle is unmatched.
21c Museum Hotel
609 Walnut St.
April 13 2019