On September 25, under a ruined proscenium, on a parking deck, among ravers, punks, scenesters, and opera-lovers, as champagne for spent performers flowed nearby—grace arrived. Nine singers, four actors, a 15-member orchestra, and a conductor had been looping the same 150-second passage from “Le nozze di Figaro” without pause for 11 hours and 50 minutes, and during the fourth-to-last repetition, I realized, this is how exhausted you’d be after the time depicted in Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera. They squeeze the fictional day’s chaos into about three hours; Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s durational installation “BLISS” expands a brief excerpt of the opera into a 12-hour ritual.
I stayed the entire time.
In “BLISS” audience members are encouraged to leave and re-enter as they please. Some guests of Michigan Opera Theatre’s pay-what-you-can production breezed through, never to reappear; others came back after hours away. Crowds ebbed and swelled, shifting from mostly opera fans to passersby over hours that seemed to dilate with each repetition. But at no point did the former movie palace, gutted to become a parking garage yet encrusted with remnants of the old interior, empty out.
“BLISS” asks performers to repeat the moment when Count Almaviva, caught in a scheme to coerce the maid Susanna into bedding him on her wedding day, sinks to his knees at the sight of the Countess. The text of the scene consists of him asking for her forgiveness (“Countess, pardon me”); receiving it (“I am more obliging, and say yes”); and joining her and the staff in a chorale-like sigh of relief (“Then let us all be happy”). Many opera-goers would love to live in this two- to three-minute island of calm just a bit longer. “BLISS” is Kjartansson’s extended “be careful what you wish for,” here entrusted to director Yuval Sharon in the artist’s absence.
A 45-year-old former advertiser whose few physical works include a neon sign reading Scandinavian Pain, Kjartansson often courts boredom, exhaustion, and injury in performance. The extreme durations and repetitions are his signature means to Romantic ends: transcendence and the sublime. These words figured prominently in promotions for MOT’s staging; even the title “BLISS,” a reference to the music’s heaving tides of resolution and the satisfaction of watching conflict evaporate, primes attendees to expect strong feelings. A reviewer at one production duly wrote of the audience cheering and crying, heard the Count as crestfallen and hopeful, and praised the Countess for piercing any heart present. In one interview, Kjartansson discussed the pendulum swings of irony and sincerity that the piece sets in motion; in another, he spoke of how the music drives “a stake through your heart,” talking with Sharon of “child-like joy,” “pain and suffering,” nostalgia, and hope. Kjartansson wants to cut to the feeling and stay there.
Kjartansson’s willingness to go to extremes for access to singular emotions felt familiar. Art and literary scholars have made ours an age of affect, attempting to study the feelings that flood the body before language barges in to explain it all away. Would “BLISS” numb me into what critic Sianne Ngai calls the stuplime, a combination of boredom and wonder produced by epically repetitive art? A friend, learning of my plans, texted back, simply, “Interesting!,” making me wonder how much it would interest me, in the sense of stirring curiosity or thought. I also anticipated that negative emotions would prevail for stretches, and sure enough: Another long-hauler I met mentioned how furious the reset points had started to make them.
I understood, but felt differently. Each time conductor Christopher Rountree arrived at the scene’s final dominant chord, paused for a heartbeat or two, and cued the strings to be ready for the Count’s entrance, I felt a disbelief born not of anger but of gratitude.
I also wondered whether the performance would feel grounded in the present. “BLISS” can feel, as critic Mark Swed puts it, like “a level of hell for #MeToo perpetrators to spend eternity in never-ending contrition,” but the bulk of the scene consists of celebrating unearned clemency. I was hardly the only person attempting to make connections between the cycling scenario and the arc of our everyday moral universe. “Forgiveness is a quality with little currency in our contemporary culture’s dispensation toward cancellation,” wrote Sharon in a facile gesture to the headlines, adding, “We are quick to judge and slow to consider.” One wonders who the “we” is here, given the ubiquity of unforgivable acts by powerful stars in an opera world full of accused abusers. I made several stabs per hour at drawing conclusions about the ethics and aesthetics of the event. But “BLISS,” largely by being so damn long, defeats efforts to hold onto pre-made interpretations or assign singular meanings. The “Figaro” excerpt, blown up to the scale (and, at times, ambient imperceptibility) of weather, offers too many shades of light, darkness, stillness, and violence to mean something. It comes to feel like everything—an environment, a home.
Sharon kept Kjartansson’s vision for traditional dress and scenery, setting a garden-like stage feet from a dining platform. The excellent players of the MOT Orchestra often wandered between spaces, to the extent that in the 11th hour, few remained in the pit area. Rountree remained unbowed and enthusiastic even as midnight neared. MOT rules permitted audience consumption of liquids, but not foods. (I ate two heavier-than-usual meals before arriving.) There was nothing to prevent audience members from wandering into the hallway where performers took breaks, so those unwilling to venture outside for a restroom could find themselves in an ordinary office-building corridor, lightly transformed by costume racks and instrument cases. Singers ate meals and drank water onstage, but also stepped away as needed, their parts temporarily absent or covered by someone else.
This meant that the actors playing Figaro and Susanna sometimes took over for those playing the Count and Countess. Otherwise Grace Wipfli and Robert Wesley Mason, the maid and valet, blended into the rest of the cast. But Wipfli sounded assured in the long stretches when she took over as Countess, and Mason brought robustness to moments as the Count that revealed how great a Figaro he would be in a full production. Still, I missed the true Count (Corey McKern) and Countess (Nicole Joseph) when they were gone.
McKern remained onstage for five hours before taking the first of his few breaks, bringing subtle shading to his expression throughout. Joseph’s leading-lady clarity, timbral variety, and stage presence seemed to reset to a radiant default each time she returned from a pause. The pair clearly trusted each other, ad-libbing new interpretations without hesitation. When McKern lounged with a bottle of wine while asking for forgiveness, all but ignoring Joseph, she pulled other singers into a circle of sympathy; when he grabbed her arm and loomed, terror flitted across her face, her pardon extracted by force. Never has a performance compelled me to think so much about blocking, or about what it means to inhabit and stay in character. At times, McKern or Joseph openly flirted with Barbarina (Lucia Helgren, delightfully over her bosses’ stagey reconciliation) and Cherubino (the magnetic Jennifer Cresswell, ideal for the role and having a ball). Other characters formed unlikely cliques or drifted off: At one point, Marcellina (Diane Rae Schoff), Don Basilio (Tyrese Byrd), and Antonio (Jacob Surzyn) formed a conversation circle with Figaro as Susanna and others wandered alone at the peripheries.
Ten years before introducing “BLISS” and 20 before the Detroit production, Kjartansson sang mock-Italianate nonsense in costume on a slapdash stage for a work called “The Opera” (2001). His subsequent work has enlisted other performers, who have not always cooperated without critique. In the summer of 2021, Kjartansson asked female and nonbinary singer-songwriters to perch around the galleries of the Guggenheim and play pop songs with misogynist lyrics on 90-minute loops for a piece called “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy.” Faced with pointed questions about the emotional labor demanded of these musicians, the artist accepted the criticism; the show went on unaltered amid lingering tension.
I walked into “BLISS” with a related anxiety. The word the Countess uses to describe herself—docile—often gets translated as “kinder,” but has a direct English cognate implying submission. Whether glossing the scene as an Enlightened alternative to divine grace, a Shakespearean idyll of inverted social orders, or the paradigmatic example of music encoding mercy, scholars encourage us to see the scene as empowering a woman with an authority normally vested in her husband. Are these positive takeaways just cruel optimisms, cloaking the reality that power will return to the Count the next morning? “BLISS” works because it entrusts the work of thinking critically about such things to the ad hoc community of people living and improvising inside it.
At the end of the day—literally—I had little to say about the artwork, the artist, Sharon, Mozart and Da Ponte, or much anything aside from the performers and the miracle they pulled off. They kept the music fresh, to the extent that I wrote part of this listening to the moment on repeat again, chasing the high. (Sharon did something similar, lingering on the firmament when he released a video of himself listening to the scene days later.) “BLISS” makes you fall in love with performers at their work. I will never forget the supernumeraries costumed as footmen, each of whom exceeded their duties of delivering food, water, and, at midnight, champagne to their colleagues. Britney Birr punctuated each hour by gravely sounding a chime; Biba Bell and Joseph Galba took to one stage to dance. Despite not having a named role, X. Alexander Durden, a trained singer, often joined the ensemble in a luminous tenor while pacing the “grounds,” still sounding fresh at midnight. The thing that filled me with grateful disbelief and—OK, fine—pierced my heart amid the stuplimity and fatigue was the gift of sharing space with these makers of incantatory art. Whatever Kjartansson’s successes or failures in “BLISS,” he manages to carve out space for reflection while effacing his own conceptual work. The result is awe, directed not toward nature, the universe, the divine, or even the expanse of time. Instead, he displays the common brilliance of collective artistic labor, and its persistence amid a crumbling world. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine, and we’re able to do so in part thanks to our subscribers. For less than $0.11 a day, you can join our community of supporters, access over 500 articles in our archives, and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
(PS: Not ready to commit to a full year? You can test-drive VAN for a month for the price of a coffee.)