A couple of years ago, actor and performance artist John Fleck was at the opening of his first gallery exhibition at Coagula Curatorial in Los Angeles. For the reception, he donned a terrifically medieval costume composed of large horns studded with rolls of toilet paper covered in his own writing. He proceeded to wander around the gallery while belting out "When I am laid in earth," the aria from the 17th century opera "Dido and Aeneas," more commonly known as "Dido's Lament."
"I've always been an opera buff," says Fleck, who is performing this weekend as part of Redcat's New Original Works Festival. "And I've always loved 'Dido's Lament,' which is about unrequited love. I mean, she sets herself on fire at the end of the opera. She literally self-destructs! I can't resist."
"Dido's Lament" is one of the most famous arias in history. It is a pivotal moment in composer Henry Purcell's baroque opera devoted to Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid. In the scene, the Trojan warrior Aeneas is departing Carthage, leaving behind his broken-hearted lover Dido. She is so despondent over being abandoned that she orders a massive pyre be built, with the intention of having herself immolated on top of it. She wants Aeneas to be able to see the flames from his ship.
"Jessye Norman is a fortress and is a wonderful performer," Fleck says. "And Klaus is this space alien that sings and it's captivating."
But in Fleck's mind, there is one version that stands out above all: a 1966 performance by British soprano Janet Baker (embedded in this post).
"She is so subtle, and a fine actor," Fleck says. "I love her vulnerability. It's not all bravado. She knows how to build it. Plus, I love the whole black-and-whiteness of the video and all those baroque costumes worn by the members of the company. It's kind of extraordinary. I've listened to this performance over and over."
Fleck is reprising "Dido's Lament" once again for his one-man show, "Blacktop Highway," on view through Saturday at REDCAT.
The new show turns away from his typical material, which tends to be biographical.
"It's a Gothic horror screenplay," says Fleck, who made headlines in 1990 for being part of the NEA Four (a group of artists who were denied grants by the National Endowment for the Arts because of the content of their work). "It's got a whole film noir, murder-mystery, somewhat supernatural overtones."
In the piece, Fleck says he plays a variety of characters with the aid of various props, as well as wigs and puppets.
The aria is sung, he says, "by a strange little creature within the play who is horribly disfigured. But his one saving grace is that he sings like an angel. The problem is that the rule of the fundamentalist Christian house where he lives is that there is no singing. So all joy is repressed, but every now and then it bursts through in a twisted sort of way."
Fleck has chosen a particularly beguiling piece of music for this scene.
As for version by Baker of "Dido's Lament," which inspired Fleck: it is absolutely hypnotic. (I've listened to it 17 times over the course of the morning.) My advice: log out of of all other programs, put your YouTube on full-screen and let Dame Baker give you a spectacular case of goose bumps.