At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.
He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.
He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?
After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.
But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.
There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.
The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.