Whitehot Magazine

Richard Kennedy's “Hybrid Peasant:” Unafraid to Bring Audiences Into The Artist's Kitchen

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By JULIA SINELNIKOVA January 31, 2024

The last time I found myself at a Richard Kennedy Opera was back when the Bushwick art scene was still riddled with artist-run galleries behind unmarked doors. “COMEUPPANCE” at SIGNAL in 2016 brought opera to the warehouses, pairing soaring vocal compositions with Kennedy's signature painterly style, evident from the stage design, to the costuming, to the mark-making acts performed on stage. That was before the multimedia artist, originally from Ohio, made their way out of the city and onto a long stint in Berlin. Their return to New York was eagerly anticipated: they summoned a full house to the 4th floor of the East Village's Keith Haring theater during the second week of January. Their new experimental work, the three act operetta  “Hybrid Peasant,” took the space over with an immersive set at its center.

Audiences perched on three walls of seating around the colorful, playground-like set, and whispers of creatives catching up after the holidays, filled the shadows with a warm hum. Then, we were led into the performance through an inviting soundtrack of the artist's friendly recorded conversation with someone broadcast over the speakers, some ambient tones coming in over it. There was a brief sense of confusion as to whether this really was the start of the show, until the artist made their way out onto the stage, clad in enshrouding dark robes. They drifted and climbed slowly throughout the set, which was marked with a large white dot on the floor, as they launched into a vulnerable, deeply emotional aria. Towards the end of this sequence, the artist twirled on the swing as they sang, their breathy, grasping tones reverberating.

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After this longer act, the audience clapped, and Kennedy introduced the piece to the audience informally. “This is kind of a workshop,” they said, indicating their experimental development process with their cast. For the next act, the group (featuring two leading vocalists, a cellist, and a singing pianist) made their way languidly onto the stage. They emerged from the back rows of the audience, where they had embedded themselves in street clothes during the first act. “Hybrid Peasant” is Kennedy's exploration of the “Nightmerican Dream… reflecting the dystopian realities of society under capitalism” (statement from Performance Space New York, 2024). The characters that filled quadrants of the stage sang of bodily rights and oppression, while exploring the playground set like languid children. They slowly climbed up to slides, and wrote on transparent panels with some leaky paint pens deposited around the stage. Melancholy rumblings from the layers of cello and piano blended with the deep interweaving of nuanced, reactive voices as the work crescendoed.

In between acts, Kennedy paused to give homage to their grandmother Shirley May, who had recently passed away. Family and community grief seemed to be centered in everything from the set design, to the isolated loneliness of each performer. They took turns with solo improvisations at first and then layered their sounds, slowly coming together. Circling, pacing and climbing around were motions built into this set, and Kennedy’s voice broke with utter sadness in some moments. I can relate to being on stage as a performing artist in the winter of the heart: we are cast into roles that require us to perform, and to express ourselves – but sometimes that performance is to someone you have lost along the way, and not so much to the audience. Nevertheless, the work’s overall story of mourning and rebirth, as well as the narration of a worker’s uprising (mentioned in the artist statement) hits home in a time of global conflict, art censorship, and loss following the height of the covid-19 pandemic years. 

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Kennedy has gained a reputation for transmuting raw emotion through vocal performance, a cathartic channeling ritual for viewers. They rose to legendary status around the time of their 2014-15 collaborations with the Hercules & Love Affair, touring as a vocalist and choreographer, and providing vocals for Andy Butler’s house track “You Can Shine.” With “Hybrid Peasant” there is an attention to the immersion of the audience, with colored lighting winding the viewer through the set. Yet there is a bareness to the production as well, with only a touch of the baroque, giving unwavering focus to the emotional journeys of the operetta’s lush, deep voices. “This piece is really about the hybrid; an access to high and low has produced a sense, in the opera world, of both access from my experiences and training and career, while also being treated as a peasant;” the artist explained to NYS Music recently.

Currently a resident artist at New York’s Ace Hotel, Kennedy’s next gallery exhibit “What is Left to Weave” opens in the hotel’s lobby gallery on February 1st. WM

Julia Sinelnikova

 Julia Sinelnikova is an artist and writer in New York City. 

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