Moondrunk (1999)

Concept: Sarah Rothenberg
Choreography and Direction: John Kelly
Music: Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, Johann Strauss
Lyrics from poems by Otto Erich Hartleben
Set Design: Scott Pask
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Costume Design: Donna Zakowska
Hair & Makeup Design: Bobby Miller
Produced by Da Camera and the Lincoln Center Great Performers New Visions series.
World premiere: The Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas, March 1998; New York Premiere: The New Victory Theater, New York, January 1999.
With: Barbara Allen (Columbine), Guillermo Figueroa (violin), John Kelly (Pierrot), Jonathan Kinzel (Harlequin), David Krakauer (clarinet), Sarah Rothenberg (piano), Lucy Shelton (soprano), Fred Sherry (cello) and Carol Wincenc (flute).


In 1998 I was approached by Sarah Rothenberg, a renowned pianist and the Artistic Director of the Houston-based chamber group Da Camera. She had conceived a musical/theatrical event centered around Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire, a song cycle comprising twenty-one poems by Otto Erich Hartleben, sung in German in the startling technique of sprechstimme, which could be said to lay somewhere between speaking and singing. I was enlisted as director of the event and also functioned as one of three dancers who would provide the visual/kinetic counterpart to the onstage chamber musicians, led by Sarah on piano and sung by the great soprano Lucy Shelton.

Moondrunk also had three main characters––this time they are soldiers whose playful movements become progressively more sexual. When they shed their clothes, we see that one is a woman. Red ribbons, a metaphor for blood, are pulled from their bodies––from the heart, the vagina, the mouth, the anus. An awakening. In the final section, “Nostalgia,” the three performers assume the garb and perform the stock antics of characters from the Italian Commedia del’Arte––Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin.

© John Kelly 2019/2001



Don Shewey, John Kelly Plays Pierrot, The New York Times, January 10, 1999

Like twins separated at birth, music and theater seem to have an eternal yearning for one another. New Visions, a series of special events that Lincoln Center’s Great Performers program will launch this week, is specifically devoted to presenting staged versions of classical work. Between now and the end of the May, the series will pair internationally renowned theater artists Peter Sellars, Robert Lepage, and Bill T. Jones with esteemed singers Lorraine Hunt, Rebecca Blankenship, and Jessye Norman.

For the inaugural program, a staged version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire called Moondrunk, which will be performed January 15 and 16 at the New Victory Theater, the figure from the world of music is pianist Sarah Rothenberg. In her acclaimed “Music Speaks” programs at Lincoln Center, Ms. Rothenberg has explored the interconnections between music and the literature of Franz Kafka, the Surrealists, and Anna Akhmatova, among others. Her collaborator on Moondrunk, however, is John Kelly, one of those rare artists in whose career the twin muses have never been separated.
As an actor, Mr. Kelly has the pale, haunted appearance of a German Expressionist film star. A skilled dancer and award-winning choreographer, he has been described by one dance critic as “beyond-all wonderful at the tiny nuances of expression and gesture.” And when he opens his mouth to sing, what most often comes out is a countertenor voice that is both startling and eerily compelling. In the course of his career, he has put his multiple talents to use in evening-length portraits of artists ranging from composer Robert Schumann (Love of a Poet) to painter Egon Schiele (Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte), from pop singer Joni Mitchell (Paved Paradise) to a transvestite tightrope walker named Barbette (Light Shall Lift Them).
No two of Mr. Kelly’s character studies have taken the same theatrical form, which is a tribute partly to his restless temperament and partly to his remarkably varied training. Born and raised in Jersey City, N.J., he first studied dance as a teenager at the American Ballet Theatre School. Feeling he’d started too late to master ballet, he enrolled at Parsons School of Design, where he studied painting with Larry Rivers. In recent years he has undertaken intensive courses in singing at the Accademia Musicale Ottorino Respighi in Assisis, Italy, in Decroux corporeal mime at the Theatre D’Ange Fou in Paris, and in trapeze and tightwire with San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. This is the kind of multidisciplinary training that would be typical for, say, a Peking Opera performer but is unusual for a 40-year-old American performer who started making shows at the Pyramid Club in the East Village.
All of this might seem like so much insecure dabbling if there weren’t a strong artistic sensibility threading through this disparate resume. As New York Times critic Mel Gussow once wrote, “Mr. Kelly is one of the most intensely personal of performance artists even as his subjects range widely in classical history and mythology. Through his alchemic art, he manages to identify himself with figures as disparate as Egon Schiele, Orpheus and the Mona Lisa. Each becomes an extension of the tragic poet personality he projects on stage.”
As a creator of theater pieces, Mr. Kelly’s method is to immerse himself in the artistic expression of a particular period. To prepare for Love of a Poet, his 1990 staging of Schumann’s early 19th century song cycle Dichterliebe, he read a lot of German romantic literature (including Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and lots of Heine), looked at the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and meditated on his own youth as a melancholy dandy. And as a performer he isn’t afraid to immerse his body, either. Halfway through Love of a Poet, he dipped his head into a wash basin, let water drip down his face, and then plunged head-first into a mound of earth that had earlier served as a symbol of the grave, so he sang the rest of the performance covered in mud.
It was this full-bodied aestheticism that drew Ms. Rothenberg to Mr. Kelly. The pianist, who divides her time between New York and Houston, where she is artistic director of the chamber music ensemble Da Camera of Houston, had played Pierrot Lunaire in concert many times and recorded it with soprano Lucy Sexton, who will sing in the New Victory performances as well. She knew she wanted to mount an evening that would examine the context out of which Schoenberg created his curious 1912 masterwork, an adaptation of 21 poems by Belgian writer Albert Giroud channeled through the commedia dell’arte character Pierrot and performed by a vocalist in “sprechstimme”, halfway between singing and speaking. She didn’t quite know what the theatrical element of the evening would be until she happened to see Mr. Kelly’s Egon Schiele piece, Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, in Houston.
“I was struck by Kelly’s sophisticated use of music and his deep kinship with the artistic period of ‘Pierrot,’ as well as his own distinctive art form, which hovers between dance and theater just as the singer of ‘Pierrot’ hovers between song and speech,” Ms. Rothenberg wrote in a program note for Moondrunk, which premiered last April in Houston.
Mr. Kelly was drawn to the project less by Schoenberg — “I always preferred Berg,” he said in an interview, with the casual crispness of an opinionated aficionado — than by the opportunity to play Pierrot. Ever since he saw Jean-Louis Barrault as the melancholy clown in the film Children of Paradise while he was a student at Parsons, “I felt destined to play this character,” Mr. Kelly said.
He described Pierrot Lunaire as “incredibly beautiful and strange, kind of like an acid trip. There’s a lot of strange imagery in the poems and the sound of yearning and anxiety. It’s been a real challenge to strike a balance between the poetry and my relationship to the music. What I’ve aimed for is to provide a visual/kinetic counterpart that has its own integrity, that tells its own story alongside the words.”
Fans of Mr. Kelly’s who treasured his hilarious and musically reverent impersonation of Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise (reprised in the movie Wigstock) may be surprised that he acts and dances in Moondrunk but does not sing. Again, it’s a reflection of his multiple gifts that he can shuffle them from project to project. No wonder he names as his idols Leonard da Vinci and Jean Cocteau.
“I hate the term ‘renaissance man,’ but it’s better than ‘performance artist,’” said Mr. Kelly. “I think the thing Sarah saw in my work was the ability to tell a story without the spoken word. I consider myself to be a poet, and I’m always trying to arrive at the place where something becomes poetry.”

Robert Hilferty, Lunar Tunes: Sarah Rothenberg and John Kelly Wax Eloquent About Moondrunk’s Bizarre Inspiration, Time Out New York, January 14, 1999

Pianist Sarah Rothenberg has a killer ear. Performance artist has a killer eye. Together, they take a killer piece, Arnold Schoenberg’s groundbreaking 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, and create from it an entire theatrical evening. Moondrunk, which kicks off Lincoln Center’s Great Performers New Visions series on Friday 15.
Rothenberg, the artistic director of Da Camera music center in Houston, is known for resurrecting forgotten composers (such as Feliz Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny), as well as for putting together concerts that demonstrate the ties between music and literature. “Pierrot is one of the most bizarre pieces ever written, but it doesn’t exist out of a historical context,” Rothenberg says on the phone from Houston. Schoenberg wrote the song cycle (which is divided into three sections, the first of which is called “Moondrunk”) as he was turning from late Romantic to atonal composition. The first half of Rothenberg and Kelly’s Moondrunk includes late piano works by Brahma, some early Schoenberg pieces and a Strauss waltz that Schoenberg orchestrated. “I play tricks on the audience, alternating Brahms and Schoenberg,” says Rothenberg, who plays some of the music. “Late Brahma sounds far more advanced and daring than early Schoenberg.” By starting out with the music that would lead into tonalism, Rothenberg says she is preparing the listener for Moondrunk’s second act, a performance of Pierrot Lunaire itself.
One of the hallmarks of Schoenberg’s song cycle is Sprechgesang, a kind of half-spoken, half-sung style performed in Moondrunk by soprano Lucy Shelton. Rothenberg and Kelly prepare the audience for this unique sound with a 1927 recording of Goethe’s haunting poem “Erlkonig”, read by a German actor who uses all four octaves of his range. In Moondrunk, the recording is accompanied by a shadow play.
Pierrot Lunaire is like cabaret from hell (indeed, Schoenberg initially wrote it for a cabaret artist), and part of what makes it so strange is the peverse poetry on which it is based—21 poems by Albert Giraud, a Belgian. “The poetry is almost like a hallucination or an acid trip,” says Kelly over snacks at Time Café. The poems contain a nonstop stream of surrealistic images that summon up the insane world of Pierrot Lunaire’s central character, the frequently mad Pierrot, a commedia dell’arte figure. Often grotesque (“Black gigantic butterflies have blotted out the shining sun,” or “His heart in bloody fingers at the gruesome grim communion”), Giraud’s paranoid projections are well suited to the sort of tonality-shattering experiments Schoenberg was involved in at the beginning of the century.
By the time Schoenberg’s song cycle is performed in the second half of Moondrunk, the audience has been exposed to the musical and artistic developments that led up to it. And although Pierrot Lunaire may be no less shocking to modern ears than it was to its first listeners, at least the audience will now understand its origins.
Rothenberg conceived Moondrunk, and Kelly says he was brought in to make it a dramatic, kinetic piece. He hired Jennifer Tipton to create the light elements, which are incredibly important. “The idea of shadow, what’s real and not real, is what Pierrot is all about,” says Rothenberg. Visually, Kellly explains, “the sections are distinct, and hopefully, there’s a journey that the audience will be taken on.” At first, the dancers are seen as World War I soldiers. “We eventually strip down to our underwear for the “Night” section, which is both sexual and liturgical. Then from there, we become the actual Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin characters of commedia dell”arte for the last section, ‘Nostalgia’.” That fulfills a dream for Kelly, who wanted to re-create turn-of-the-century Pierrot photos taken by the French photographer Nadar.
Kelly is well known for his remarkable Joni Mitchell work, as he is for his evocative theatrical collages about other artists (among them the painter Egon Schiele and the transvestite trapeze artist Barbette), so this foray is particularly in keeping with his theatrical vision. “All the characters I create are going through some kind of struggle or rite of passage, and some of them survive and some of them don’t. Struggle makes for interesting drama. Complacent life is not interesting to see onstage. I’m not content to be Muzak. I want to be taken somewhere new,” he says.