Love of A Poet (1990)

An enactment of Robert Schumann’s 1840 song cycle, Dichterliebe

Mise en scène, Direction: John Kelly
Music: Robert Schumann
Lyrics: Heinrich Heine / Joseph Von Eichendorff
English Texts: Michael Feingold
Music Direction and piano Accompaniment: Fernando Torm-Toha
Set Design: Huck Snyder
Film Sequences: Anthony Chase
Environmental Design: Pure Madderlake
Lighting Design: Stan Pressner
Produced by Dance Theatre Workshop, Creative Time, & John Kelly Performance.
Premiere: Battery Maritime Building, New York, October 10, 1990.
Performance: John Kelly (the poet); Fernando Torm-Toha (piano); on film: Kyle De Camp, Billy Beyond.
Winner of a 1990 Obie Award.

PRESS

Allan Kozin, Schumann, And Antics Of A Sad Poet, The New York Times, October 14, 1990

One hears much lamentation these days to the effect that the art of lieder is either moribund or dead. Although that may seem an alarmist view, it could certainly be argued that fewer singers are devoted to the art than in the past; that today’s large concert halls are not the ideal places for performances so intimate, and that the form appeals, increasingly, to an audience with very specialized tastes.

Probably the last place an aficionado of the form would think of looking for signs of hope is the world of avant-garde performance art. But on Wednesday evening at the Battery Maritime Building, John Kelly offered the first in a series of ambitiously staged performances of ”Love of a Poet,” a production based on Robert Schumann’s ”Dichterliebe.” A few songs from the cycle have been cut, and there are interpolations from Schumann’s ”Liederkreis” and the ”Kinderszenen” piano cycle.

Mr. Kelly’s reading is quirky, to be sure. He is, to begin with, a countertenor, a voice type unusual but not unprecedented for Schumann. The English countertenor Paul Esswood, for one, has included Schumann cycles in his recitals. Mr. Kelly’s voice is attractive and expressive, if not especially polished. But inventiveness, not vocal technique, is what drives this production, and his performance was extremely moving. The work is staged as a day with a melancholy and somewhat morbid poet in the early 19th-century mold, with suitable costumes and props, the one anachronism being a radio. When first encountered, the poet is dreaming fitfully, tossing and turning in his bed as Fernando Torm-Toha plays a dissonant piano overture, graced with hints of Schumann. A black-and-white film, projected on a sheet hung over the poet’s bed, shows him pursuing his elusive love.

With the cycle’s opening song, ”Im Wunderschonen Monat Mai,” Mr. Kelly pulls himself up, wearily. As the set unfolds, he moves back and forth between the bedchamber and garden sections of Huck Snyder’s partly realistic, partly allegorical set.

His antics along the way can seem eccentric on their own, but they bear connections – occasionally tortured ones – to the texts. But his most startling gesture occurred just before ”Ein Jungling Liebt ein Madchen,” as Mr. Torm-Toha played ”Der Dichter Spricht” from ”Kinderszenen.” He thrust his head into his wash basin, let the water drip off him for a moment, and then dived headlong into a mound of earth that had earlier served as a symbol of the grave. He sang the rest of the cycle covered in mud and, surprisingly, was all the more affecting. Mr. Kelly’s approach to language is interestingly fluid. He begins and ends the cycle in German, with an excellent translation by Michael Feingold, the Village Voice theater critic, projected as supertitles. But in the middle of the cycle, he sings either in English or alternating between the German and the translation.

There were musical liberties, too. Mr. Torm-Toha occasionally elongated song introductions to suit Mr. Kelly’s maneuverings, and while his accompaniments were for the most part precise, his dynamics and tempos were often more freewheeling than literal. Mr. Kelly took some unusual vocal turns, particularly a Monty Python-like squawk at the start of ”Ein Jungling Liebt ein Madchen.”

The Battery Maritime Building, at Whitehall Street, near the Staten Island Ferry terminal, proved an ideal setting. Roughly industrial though it is, the space is suitably intimate and gives the poet a window on the harbor. The production also benefited from Anthony Chase’s films, Stan Pressner’s lighting and Hebe Joy’s costumes.

 

Gordon Rogoff, Future Leider, October 23, 1990

Tears make flowers, sighs turn into a choir of nightingales, the soul sinks into a lily’s cup, and those flowers whisper and speak.

Imagine the lieder singer’s life, everlastingly condemned to yearn for impossible, dreamy, unrequitable love. This, at any rate, is the special mission of Schumann in his settings for 16 of Heine’s 1827 lyrics, the Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), a cycle that makes only the vaguest pretension to a narrative line. Between them, Heine and Schumann follow the path of a neurasthenic young man in love with love—with the precious, delectable images he can find as his affair heaves itself into exquisite failure.

If the great, authoritative singers of the lied in this century are to be believed, even the interior narrative of the song must be conveyed through a minimalist actor’s art: the flash of an eye, the slow descent of a hand, and more than anything, a steady gaze into past or future as the singer listens intently to the piano’s rueful, ironic, or decisive conclusions. Nothing is done to upset the balancing act of the emphatic words, he vocal line, and the piano’s quicksilver shifts from support to his passionate comment. Schumann’s songs may offer temptations for heart-in-mouth display, but Fischer-Dieskau, Prey, and Schreier give us the facts as intimations. Not for them the literal reenactment of the lied’s bad dream.

Nor did I ever think I would see one. For years, I’ve done my own bathtub renderings of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, gagging on high notes, but compensating for technical lapses with a repertoire of grand, illustrative gesture that would surely make Bernhardt and rock singers look like masters of restraint. Devout cowardice my religion, I never thought that what I was urging myself to do was performance art. Now, however, thanks to the droll good humor of dauntless John Kelly, the least solemn and most lyrical of our performance artists, I have seen my future—and it works!

Kelly’s version of the poet’s dream is set magically in what may be the most original theater space in New York, Kelly himself more like a found object than an actor protected by the usual illusions. The room is on the second floor of the Battery Maritime Building overlooking a part of the harbor where ferries crisscross one another with magnificent indifference to the poet’s despair. Against the calming, amplified sound of water lapping at the building, and surrounded by lavender drapes, a mound of dark sand, a huge bucket of dried autumn flowers underneath a giant, gnarled tree trunk, Kelly at first sleeps through Fernando Torm-Toha’s graceful, meandering, Schumannesque fragments on the upright as a black-and-white silent movie plays on the drape above his narrow, ineffably lonely bed. He’s dreaming of a girl in a secret garden, always yards behind her as she sweeps into a cave or drops the largest handkerchief in the world on the forest lawn; inevitably, he meets Death, heavily shrouded while digging a grave. When poet and girl finally find themselves on either side of a bench, they glance shyly at one another, each nudging a ball in the other’s direction evidently the best they can manage.

When Kelly awakens, Schumann’s song cycle and its delicious deconstruction begins. First seen in his nightshirt, he actually envisions the nightingale that is never far from any romantic song cycle, chasing it as he did the girl, his gestures far-flung pleas to the air, the moon, the stars. Then, at his writing table, he flips the dial of his radio—Wouldn’t Heine have done the same?—never satisfied by the arias he’s hearing, preferring instead to write a little, drop his pen, and let his hand fly to one side as he copes with the deliquescent pain.

And so it goes, with infinite variations on the crack-brain, yet delightfully free vocabulary of gesture available to our self-pitying hero. He weeps during the song’s postlude, or stops suddenly at the piano, catching his accompanist’s eye, but like all such threats to the intoxicating misery he slips past the opportunity like those ferries in the night, submitting to the call of the next song. His nightshirt discarded, he disappears into the outside darkness with the pair of scissors found in the sand, returning after a movie interlude with what looks alarmingly like shorter hair. Whether pacing, climbing the ladder, gazing out a window, soaking his head, or falling on the mound Kelly is always the perfect sufferer, gloriously ascetic, deliriously in thrall to a power greater than love, music and words.

For the most part, he sings in German, Michael Feingold’s graceful translations flashed as super-titles on the drape above the bed. Fischer-Dieskau need no tremble: Kelly sings in two plaintive registers, suffering momentary pitch problems when pushes to the top. His phrasing, however is as musical as his dark, uncovered alto, and he makes the words seem palpable—like the peach Torm-Toha bites into at one point, or the piece of cheese Kelly himself munches as he listen gravely to Schumann’s final comments.

Fast zu Ernst (Almost too serious) is the title of a Kinderszenei piece played by Torm-Toha, a warning heeded throughout by Kelly. Only once does he laps into caricature, singing Ein Jiln gling liebt ein Mddchen (A young man had a sweetheart) in a shrieking cackle that suddenly refuses to let the poor soul off the hook. Kelly is Lord Byron, not Robin Williams, at his best when he gives sway to the true poet shining through his baleful gaze. His quiet beauty is the strongest argument against easy-come silliness.

The cheese and the pear are comment enough in what is finally a heroic tribute to Schumann, Heine, the wonderful intimacy of lieder, and the unrecoverable romantic spirit. Kelly is that choir of nightingales, both the singer and the song.

 

Jean Battey Lewis, John Kelly’s Stage Alchemy Melds Many Arts Into One, The Washington Times, 1991

John Kelly is a poet of the evanescent, a Pierrot of the 1990s, a throwback romantic whose natural habitat would seem to be a garret. First a dancer and choreographer, then painter, sculptor, cabaret performer and late-blooming singer, he has somehow found a way to meld all these disciplines into haunting stage presentations.

For want of a better term he calls what he does performance art, but he understands the bad connotations: “Sometimes I think it’s an excuse for lack of craft or concern with technique—and I think those things are really important,” Mr. Kelly says. “They make the work stronger. I know what effect I want to create before I begin, and then I just go about making a skeleton; I find the right bones for it. I do storyboards for my pieces and conceive things visually, even cinematically.”

Mr. Kelly, who has one an Obie Award, a couple of Bessie awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, was here earlier this year at Dance Place for two soldout performances of “Born With the Moon in Cancer.” The work dripped with romantic images and soared with operatic arias — Verdi’s “Stride La Vampa” and Saint-Saens’ “Mon Coeur S’Ouvre a la Voix”— which he sang mostly in the countertenor range.

He’s back this weekend with the first performances here of “Love of a Poet,” which opened to admiring reviews in New York, where he lives, three weeks ago. The new piece uses most of “Dichterliebe,” Robert Schumann’s setting of poems by Heinrich Heine that tell a brooding tale of love won and lost; Again Mr. Kelly will sing most of the poems in countertenor, although one will be sung an octave lower, in the baritone range. “I am doing that to break up the texture. For the same reason I am singing some of the songs in German— the language is so beautiful, and some in English because it will provide an immediacy which is important,” he says.

“This isn’t a song recital of it as theater. It functions on different levels — the visual level, the dramatic level, the musical level.” “I’m sure some people think you need to remain on your knees and let the music remain untouched. I can appreciate that but that’s not the stance that I’ve assumed. It’s beautiful art, but art — it’s from another time, and you have to do your best to make it speak for today.”

So Mr. Kelly has placed it in a period setting but uses elements such as radio and well as “some timeless ones and water.”
“Robert Schumann wrote a song a week, at the point when he was hoping to get married to Clara, and her father wouldn’t let them and it to court. So he was really frustrated but also pretty excited. I started working on it about a year ago with Fernando Torm-Toha, my musical director and accompianist. Basically it’s a beautiful story with exquisite music and haunting images.”
Mr. Kelly’s past works, both solo and group, have mixed song and movement differently. A piece on the tragic life of painter Egon Schiele, “Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte,” was full of angular choreography and sections of the ballet “Giselle.” In 1984, after a visit to East Berlin, Mr. Kelly performed a work celebrating American freedom by depicting a graffiti artist who escapes over the Berlin Wall. Last summer at New York’s Lincoln Center, he created a piece “about rage and anger over the ambivalence toward the AIDS crisis.” Offstage, Mr. Kelly is soft-spoken and reticent. Onstage he is a consummate performer who holds an audience transfixed. “I don’t know how or why I do it,” he muses. “Well, I know why I do it — I love to do it, but it also takes its toll. I often get colds after a performance, and each time I do a premiere I’m broke afterward. You can only go through that so many times, you can only have just so many labors of love, and then you get disgusted with the system and with a country that doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of artists until we do or say something they don’t like — and then they punish us. It’s strange; I’m really a shy person, but onstage I’m able to explore my feelings and emotion — that’s really important for me. If people find it interesting to watch, that’s great. Of course, I’m going to do everything I can to make it interesting and compelling and touching and have a punch to it. I suppose it’s a selfish thing in a way, but I guess that’s what an artist does — goes deep inside and brings out things an audience wants to look at.”

 

Robert Greskovic, Fall And Recovery, New York Native, November 5, 1990

The perils of preciousIty are slyly averted by way of John Kelly’s wit and his relish for getting his hands dirty.

Love of a Poet by John Kelly is the most provocative sampling to date from this handsome young man and his fascination with poetic artists by way of their work. The hour-long presentation, given in the somewhat grotty surroundings of the Staten Island ferry’s Manhattan terminal, is a rich, little gesamtkunstwerk.

This particular performance in the eight-performance run was especially blessed by the Muse of the Total Work of Art. In addition to the picturesque vista of water, boats, and skyline outside the terminal’s small-paned windows and garage-size doors, this show featured a full-blown nighttime storm, complete with whistling winds, bursts of lightning, slashing rains and resonant rumblings of thunder. The incurable Romantic that Kelly portrayed in this work could not, in his wildest dreams, have engineered a more evocative atmosphere, even if he had had the supernatural omnipotence to do so.

Still, having seen Love of a Poet, which indeed deals with wild dreams, on a previous occasion, where “the elements” were not so dramatically involved, I can state with certainty that the extra atmosphere on this night was little more than a finishing varnish on Kelly’s inherently confident portrait of a young artist.

Having already investigated such artist/art subjects as the Mona Lisa (rather campily), Orpheus (somewhat diffusely), and Egon Schiele (intriguingly, who could forget those brilliant, white fingernails?), this time around Kelly’s subject is composer Robert Schumann, the early nineteenth century Romantic in all his love-sick intensity, fragile, feverish, and single-minded.

The work’s text is taken from Schumann song cycles, the core being the Dichterleibe written in 1840, late in the composer’s short life. The lyrics, when Kelly’s idiosyncratic countertenor delivers them in German, get projected, in English translations by Michael Feingold, as supertitles. Some of the lyrics’ most striking images: illusive ladies in gardens, totemic Madonnas in shrines, and dead poets in mid-burial also get projected, in artful black and white films (by Anthony Chase) on lavender curtains. They materialize as hallucinatory phantasms hovering like pearlescent mists in the salon section of the interior/exterior setting. The decor, with set credit to Kelly’s usual and greatly gifted collaborator, Huck Snyder, and ‘environmental design” credit to Madderlake, is masterly in the magic it creates with this unromantic, industrial space pervasively colored in uninspired, institutional green. Gnarled and tendrilled vines, in part the size of tree trunks, cluster at one side of the space, where they yield way to a two story step ladder and metamorphose into a swagged purple drapery. Center-space, the setting is that of a bed room, arranged with an unmade bed, a writing table, a small, crystal chandelier, and such anomalies as a zinc wash tub, a little gray casket, which contains a radio, and a mound of tobacco colored earth.

Iridescently lighted by Stan Pressner, with illumination that delicately isolates sections of the small space and that changes character dramatically by working from sources inside and outside the windowed space. Love of a Poet has a glow more palpable and less stagey than most of Caspar David Friederich’s overtly Romantic landscapes. Any lighting design that can transform sickly hospital green into burnished, silvery translucence is painterly to an unprecedented degree.

With surroundings as delicate and refined as all these, Kelly’s portrayal of helpless love sickness is perfectly primed to turn into a powdery valentine of sugary laces and musty perfumes. With his shapely, bony, long limbs and his open-featured face, complete with naturally raised eyebrows, innocent fair eyes, and gentle, almost pert, small mouth, Kelly’s very physicality only adds to such potential. But the perils of preciosity are slyly averted by way of Kelly’s wit and his relish for getting his hands dirty. This is not a rarified, sanitized portrayal of an incurable Romantic, but one that shows the dank undersides of such emotional states alongside their beguilingly idealist surfaces. Mostly, Kelly’s singing is presented with the singular, frank passion of some one singing in the shower. Only these declarations of passion all have about them the foreknowledge of their undeniable impossibility. Each new verse of song and new direction of yearning is projected into a realm of obvious no return. The intensity of artistic expression is continually matched by the futility of the actual situation.

During the first part of the work, Kelly alternately lingers and lurches about in his flannel nightshirt, with his hair all tousled, like that of an absent-minded professor. This segment climaxes with his digging in the mound of earth where-upon he retrieves a pair of shears. After disrobing, and slipping out into the night air, he returns for more heartsickness, now clothed in frilly shirt and long pants. For this reappearance, he looks very much changed: his shocked-up hair has become tame, now clinging delicately close to his head. The denouement for this re-entry comes when he releases what he has been clutching in his hand: two white flowers and a clump of shorn locks.

Eventually he soaks his head in the wash tub and then falls, face-first onto the pile of soil, not caring what either of these extremes does to his appearance, his ability to sing, or his chances at ingratiating himself with his audience. All the while, from the very start of the piece, an imposing fellow named Fernando Torm-Toha sits at the set’s piano, where he acts as formal accompanist, and as a Schumann-esque alter ego. Dressed in rumpled, undone romantic shirt, woolen pants and clunky shoes, Torm-Toha looks like a nineteenth prototype of Billy Idol. With his spiked, platinum hair, the intense by almost stoic pianist alternately munches on an apple, lights some candles, or just plays Schumann’s songs. If he weren’t so evidently fascinating in his un-theatrical intensity, he could pass for a piano playing zombie. To Kelly’s poet, crying in the night, Torm-Toha’s poet, playing the dutiful assistant, is picture of stability and sanity.

By the end, having made no attempt to clean off the dirt or dampness he fell into during the course of his expressions of love, Kelly dons a waistcoat, and, seating himself at his work desk, cuts into a hunk of some comestible. Then, with no further songs in his heart, he chews on his food and swallows it. The surest sign that a fever has broken is the return of appetite, and the desire to eat and gain back lost strength. Only, as the weakened individual regains touch with the world, he probably also pauses and recalls the wonders revealed in the dreams he has just passed through. There’s something to be said for the calm of workaday life, but there is also something more to be gained from the ineffability of art.

 

Robert Simons, Beyond Broadway: Love of A Poet, Theatre Week, November 1990

John Kelly’s breathtaking new performance piece, a Romantic voyage entitled Love of A Poet, wherein Kelly takes on the mantle of Artist for Art’s Sake, is appropriately housed in the pale green, haunted-looking Battery Maritime Building, Inside, the space is strewn with Romantic paraphanalia; tangled vines and wild-flowers, a crystal chandelier, and a poet’s boudoir. The backdrop is a wall of metal-framed windows; beyond, a dark New York Harbor and the plaintive sounds of the sea.

From this stage, Kelly—waxen except for the lavender light that bathes the scene—plays out his half-earnest, half-mocking John Keats fantasy. He awakes from satin sheets, writes tortuously at his writing table, all the while in veritable sackcloth and aches over the lost love that has rent his heart from his breast. Eventually, he performs the ultimate Romantic gesture by flinging himself face first into a mound of pristine soil.

Throughout, Kelly never speaks a word, instead treating his untrained but effective falsetto to a dozen selections from Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), a series of poetic compositions out-crying themes of despair and unrequited love. The material id rapturously maudlin, as are the artist’s forlorn posturings, Yet Kelly makes it clear that the matter is to be taken seriously.

When Kelly does wish the audience to be amused by his poetic pastiche, he coyly permits tongue in cheek vignettes to mix with the high tragedy of his piece. This use of irony succeeds splendidly, as when he scales & ladder to place his sorrowful visage within a portal frame; or, most winningly, when, after a good 30 minutes of lamentation, he deadpans, “‘I don’t complain.’

 

Mike Steele, CLASSICAL RECITAL UPLIFTED BY SINGER’S ENACTMENTS. Star Tribune Minneapolis, November 17, 1990

Classical song recitals have become buttoned-down affairs, stiffly formal, slightly precious, the stuff of vocal connoisseurs at best, anachronistic at worst.
A John Kelly song recital is quite a different cup of ambrosia, however. Instead of merely singing, Kelly, astonishingly, enacts the songs. In “Love Of A Poet,” his 55-minute foray into Schumann’s great 19th-century song cycle “Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love)” now at Ruby’s Cabaret, Kelly gets inside the Heinrich Heine lyrics, embraces Schumann’s mournful tunes and makes the melancholy of high romanticism palpable. Kelly is a fascinating presence, slightly fey in a Byronic way, his dark eyes always focused toward the abstractions of the cosmos, his expressive alto voice haunting and surprisingly moving. Last year he performed opera arias, most of them soprano set pieces, with absorbing commitment and a daring embrace of every ounce of passion within them.

In “Love Of A Poet,” he thoroughly embraces every poetic nuance of the soulful, unrequited love he so self-pityingly portrays. It’s a romantic poetry in which flowers spring from tears, nightingales sing sighs and lilies whisper in the ear. It’s a romance doomed, of course, a yearning for impossible love leading to melancholy and death.

To pull this off, the performer, like the poet, must be in love with the very impossibility of love, with the precious imagery of love’s despair. Were he to wed the woman we see him following forlornly in the silent movie opening there would be no emotional tragedy, and no song cycle.In a romantically decaying room (by Huck Snyder), filled with draped furniture, curtains, an empty gold picture frame, Kelly sings of his despair dreamlike from his bed. He listens to the Schumannesque overture played by pianist Fernando Torm-Toha, then rises and sings of buds blooming in May.

He’s propelled by the siren call of song. He swoons, he weeps, he gazes toward the heavens (and toward his pianist), but the next song pulls him ever onward. Kelly’s humor is wry and subtle. He’s so absorbed in his misery that one hardly dares laugh, which gives his work a special edge. He sings of the sacred Rhine as he steps, shivering, into a washtub of water. Later he buries his head in the tub, then leaps onto an earthen grave, emerging mud-covered but still, touchingly, singing. In the midst of his most morbid longings, while scratching out poetry on parchment, he fiddles with his radio until he hits an opera aria, which sends him swooning.

But he stays firmly in character, never going for laughs, never falling into caricature, foursquare within the persona of the sentimental poet. The result is ethereal and unsettling as well as witty. He ultimately pushes his despair into death, singing of his need for a coffin dropped into the sea that will be large enough to hold all his love and suffering. By then he has become the poet and loosed every romantic nerve end that still reverberates through our 20th-century sensibilities. It’s alarming, and fascinatingly effective.