Playing the Fool: Rinde Eckert

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Rinde Eckert | via brynmawr.edu

When Rinde Eckert presents My Fools: A Life in Song October 6-7 at Bryn Mawr College’s Hepburn Teaching Theater in Goodhart Hall, it won’t just be a “where-the-hell-you-been-welcome-back.” Sure, the artist hasn’t played Philadelphia since his American Music Theater Festival premiere of his 1989 work, Power Failure.

But My Fools is a celebration of one of the avatars of musical genre-juggling, performance-art-opera, a man with ten radically diverse albums under his belt, a handful of admirable characters at the tip of his pen, and more Guggenheim grants than you’ve had hot meals.

Recently (like last weekend) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater where he performed the forlorn “My Lai” with his longtime friends in Kronos Quartet, Eckert – as an interview subject, just hours before show time – was friendly, charmingly smart and forthcoming.

The Key: What does it take to write characters for yourself, whether real life or imagined? What are you looking for?

Rinde Eckert: It happens with different approaches. In “God Created Great Whales,” my initial impetus was to write something on “Moby Dick.” The first thing that occurred to me was this idea of a piano tuner who had to tune his piano perfectly – so that became his white whale, the big metaphor for everything I did there. That was a deliberate intellectual process. Then, there was something I did called “Idiot Variation” which is part of “My Fools” next weekend – which stemmed from a personal thing. l I was feeling impotent in terms of my career. I made some terrible mistakes, a very big mess of an expensive piece, and felt like I had to go back to basics.

TK: You felt like an idiot.

RE: I did. And that’s what my dad called me growing up – his major epithet for me. When I was a kid that wasn’t the best parenting.

TK: And we should add that he and your mom were both opera singers.

RE: Yes. So, I did research on various idiots in various curatorial situations. In some places, idiocy is close to genius. There’s a whole spiritual idiot thing in India. Holy fools who behave weirdly. There is Dostoevsky’s Idiot. I had an Irish voice in my head that spoke to ‘the eedjit.’ as if in a Beckett play. You make these things part of your dreams. You may have to goose them a little. Or sometimes, you have to follow the rabbit down the hole, put aside your research and go where the rabbit goes.

TK: That holy fool thing also ties into the work and theory of the Beats: Corso, Rexroth, Burroughs, Kerouac. That fool thing remains big for you since that’s part of the Bryn Mawr show. But, let me go back to go forward: you started out with opera – then didn’t. Why do you think eschewing traditional opera lead you to the form we now you for?

RE: I was in my 20s and struggling. I’m pretty much a pragmatist and looked very hard at myself without sugar coating. I was on the edge of the opera world, relegated to a comprimario role where I didn’t have the kind of instrument … I didn’t have that thrilling Mediterranean tenor voice. I’m in my 20s and I’m looking at the Three Tenors, Pavarotti and that whole thing.

TK: You don’t remember ‘the other guy’ – that’s very “Seinfeld”.

RE: Practically speaking, at that point, I wasn’t one. And how many Americans were? None. That tells you something, How many celebrated AMERCIAN tenors in total are there? I can’t name any. Or they are hardly celebrated at all. So what are the odds against me? Big. So where did I stand? How close am I to that sound? Am I gonna be a B student for the rest of my life?

TK: That’s funny.

RE: But true. So you pick a class where you can be at the top. So what was my skill set? What were my interests? Who were my friends? Maybe, find your friends and figure where you belong – so I’ll go through any door that opened up. Maybe I would find people excited by what I could offer them. It was only then that I got offered fascinating options by odd little groups to join in their games, invent things performance art stuff, stuff with sculpture and projection. So there I was right in the middle if the avant-garde with what I had was a lot to bring to that table. Not only could I write, but I was a good improviser. I was having a ball. It was a dynamic universe, and everybody recognized how valuable I was.

TK You flourished.

RE: I did, I really grew with that community, I was at the top of the class. And now my voice was at at the top of that thing.

TK: That wasn’t far off from your 1989 debut in Philly. So what do you think of the whole nu-opera ideal at present? We had several premiere modernist works at Opera Philadelphia which ended last week.

RE: I don’t care for it – not the name – because it stems from a tradition that I was never truly a part. Then again, at the same time, it is odd, now that the opera world is turning It in my direction. I feel as if I, and several others like me, have been part of a movement to help that change along. So, now, I’m thinking that opera is coming to me. I welcome the company. Some of us have been here a long time.

TK: So what’s great about My Lai, not to sound so cheery about an horrific topic?

RE: it’s a great treat in that it is based on a person that I wouldn’t normally go to, so I have had to inhabit this new mask which is really fun. That stretches me in a good way. Takes me out of my comfort zone in many ways – I have had to go to seek this out. This is not my natural world. l I love that challenge

TK: How so? What is the difference between My Lai’s Hugh Thompson and the roles you’ll essay during My Fools?

RE: I usually create characters that have a rich inner landscape and great aspirations. I think they are trapped in a small outside world, but within that… there is a huge world… just contained…not powerful on the outside. Not your usual flawed hero. My people are not looking for the humility. They are in humiliating situations. When we move into rich interior lives, their worlds expand. My character in My Lai is forever plagued by an event in his life, but very clear about himself. That military efficiency about himself which allowed him to make an unequivocally heroic act – he put himself in the middle of a gun fight between innocent people and people going berserk – without using his weapon.

TK: So your heroes are different sorts of men. Why look backwards now at the fools in your life in Bryn Mawr?

RE: It is not only about the characters, but ways of singing that I can’t often visit in one work. Here I will sing in many fashions. Usually though I sing one way in one work and another way in another work. I can’t or don’t do the folk material in most circumstances, and I can’t do the hard edged avant-garde at the same show. Here I will. It is about changing your perspective, traveling through strange lands, and I am a stranger through all of them. That is what you have to bring to these pieces. I’m an avant-garde singer reared on the traditional, so there is great affinity and great alienation. As a fool I am alienated, but as the master of them all, I am not. So this show is about wanting to do a number of different pieces, in one place – some of which I might not do again. In this format I can take the audience through a wild journey onto many different islands.

Rinde Eckert performs My Fools: A Life in Song at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall October 6 and 7. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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