Twenty-five years ago, performance artist John Kelly created the Obie Award-winning Love of a Poet, a dramatic, multimedia performance of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle composed in 1840. The site-specific work premiered in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building in 1990 — when the waterfront did not make for a pleasant recreation stroll and New York City’s murder rate had peaked at 2,245.

Today the Battery Maritime Building is the launch for free ferries to bucolic Governors Island, where Kelly is re-making Love of a Poet (2015). His upcoming performances June 25-28 are part of the River To River Festival mounted by The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. This version includes Kelly singing Schumann’s song cycle (with poetry by Heinrich Heine) in countertenor register, the 1990 work’s black-and-white 16mm film sequences by Anthony Chase, and a new set installation by Jarrod Beck.

In a phone interview with NYC-ARTS, Kelly said, “There’s no way of completely replicating an existing piece and what’s the point? I’m a different person, it’s a different time and it’s a different space.” Here are insights into the acclaimed work from Kelly, as well the River To River Festival events he hopes to see.

Q: What was your introduction to Schumann’s Dichterliebe?

JK: I had begun studying voice around 1990. I had been singing in clubs for years with little training. For those performances at 1 or 2 am or even earlier, the rawness of my singing was fine.

I signed up for a summer course in Assisi, Italy, with Peter Elkus, a voice teacher who had been married to the opera singer Frederica von Stade. He said I should check out Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

There’s a slight tangent here. I was on the board of Creative Time at that point, and there had been a plan to have Creative Time, Dance Theater Workshop and perhaps other groups create a new home in the Battery Maritime Building, the old ferry portal.

I approached the board to do a piece based on Schumann’s song cycle in that space — it’s got a really live sound. (As it turned out, the dream of having a home there died with the next city administration; a hotel is being built on top of building now).

I was able to pull together this piece and Peter Elkus came to see it. He came backstage and literally his mouth was open. He was shocked because I took his suggestion and went with it. The site-specific nature really lent itself to the poetry and the dark, romantic, brooding aspect of the work. I was very proud of the piece.

Q: What about the production, or your interests today, led you to revisit it?

JK: I had gotten two NEA American Masterpieces grants to reinterpret two of my benchmark group works, one based on Egon Schiele, and my version of Orpheus and Eurydice. I did those reconstructions in 2010 and 2011. In the back of my mind was whether there could be a trilogy, and the obvious choice to complete the trilogy would be Love of a Poet. Then a year ago I got an open studios residency through Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on Governors Island. Every day I went through the Battery Building and my studio looked across to it. The light went on quickly and got brighter and brighter. I said I have to do this.

The Battery building wasn’t possible and I’m using the Arts Center (Building 110) on Governors Island. The basement has much lower ceilings and is sprawling but it has its own quality. The production has the presence of elements: a pile of dirt, a tub of water. It’s like Caspar David Friedrich Romanticism — not wimpy, limpy romanticism, but more like throwing yourself in the river Romanticism. The immediacy of unamplified singing is crucial to this experience. I sing mostly in countertenor and some in baritone. Twenty-five years later I have better technique and I’m pretty certain I’m going to pull it off. It’s a crazy thing to consider.

Q: When you perform the poet, who is he to you? Is he literally, a 19th-century poet? Is he the composer Schumann, pining for his future wife Clara?

JK: He could be all of those things, but for me he is a deeply unsettled spirit in pain. I’m giving him more history this time because the actor in me needs to do that. I am in period costume. I have long hair at the beginning. I am not a martinet when it comes to exact period detail, but it jump starts from 1840. He is the character that’s in the songs which show he is bereft over a thwarted love.

I am making him as essential and iconographic and universal as I can without being sentimental. The music is so beautiful, so lush and so romantic and so surprisingly modern to me at times. My job is to juxtapose with enough grit, enough edge and enough menace and surprising choices so that’s it’s not just residing in the realm of charm.

Q: What do you make of the poet’s love and despair?

JK: I respond to it, I recognize it. It’s a bit excessive but it’s also, why the hell not stay there? He needs to stay there. At one point he attempts to kill himself, but instead he cuts his hair off.

I had a brush with something not dissimilar to that years and years ago. Also, when I made piece in 1990, I had been losing collaborators left and right to the AIDS epidemic, beginning with a mentor in 1982. That time was the belly of the beast. The protease inhibitor drugs that were the one breakthrough didn’t come about until 1995. My life and my tribe were utterly decimated by that reality.

Being an intuitive actor, I used the confusion and rage around that sense of loss and infused it into this poet’s loss and sadness. Surprisingly enough, I recently had a short fling that got very intense. I didn’t get dumped but the brakes were put on it. My way of dealing with it was by drinking a lot of beer one night. Of course, all my demons emerged and I surprised myself with the sounds that came out of my mouth when I was crying, almost yelling. The whole time I was doing it, I thought, great I can use this in the piece! So there’s the artist at work. Why not, right?

Q: How are you preparing to inhabit the character of the poet and perform it now, 25 years later?

JK: The vocals is the most crucial thing for me to be both prepared for and to be able to inhabit. Everything else comes from my need to produce sound. The staging is finding those necessities in my body. The most important thing for me to do is to be utterly present in the performance. That’s not hard because performing is still completely terrifying. Singing is terrifying because it’s so utterly exposed, especially in close quarters like this. It’s going to be no problem for me to be focused and to have my terror and desperation be the poet’s terror and desperation.

Q: In an LA Times interview you did together with Joni Mitchell in 2010, she said of her singing, and of your performance Paved Paradise: The Art of Joni Mitchell, “You have to go to the brink of sadness but never fall into melodrama, then send in the clowns for a moment.” Does a similar guideline hold for Love of a Poet?

JK: She’s so completely brilliant with words. I completely agree with that.

You want to clobber people, but you have to seduce them. In order to seduce them, you have to at some level let them think they know what they’re getting or let them feel comfortable enough to go there. Then the minute they think they know what they’re getting, you clobber them and say no, that’s not what you’re getting, you’re getting something else, you’re getting this truth. Generally the audience reaction to it is laughter because they’re surprised, not because it’s funny, but because it winds up registering as a truth. That’s really what humor is — it’s a recognition of truth that we share.

Joni’s quote is perfectly applicable to this piece. Especially with the material –  1840, Romantic song cycle. It’s my constant dance with myself and the audience to let us go there and to not let it be melodramatic or “sentimental.” Sentiment yes, but not sentimental — if there’s a difference!

Straddling irony and pathos — I like being in that place.

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Photo: John Kelly in Love of a Poet (2015), by Billy Erb. Interview conducted by Christina Knight and edited for length.

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