‘Touch of Elegance’ opera spotlights abstract beauty, heritage at ICA

"Touch of Elegance," an opera about both queer and black identities, was performed at the ICA on Saturday. Photo by David Riley, courtesy of the ICA

Aaron Royce, Contributing Writer

The first act of Richard Kennedy’s opera, “Touch of Elegance,” which premiered at the Institute for Contemporary Art on Saturday, included a statement of the performance as “opera that’s centered on blackness, queerness, and doing the most.” 

For just over an hour, “Touch of Elegance” commanded the two in an exercise of black opera. There was an all-black cast, prominently featuring a pink-suited Kennedy acting as both performer and director. 

The work was primarily an homage to an individual known as Wallace, a stylist at the Touch of Elegance salon — where Kennedy’s mother worked as a receptionist — and the first queer person Kennedy met. 

“[Wallace] was visibly queer in a gnarly and radical way, and really inspired me,” Kennedy said. “I’ve always been inspired and so thankful for encountering someone so unapologetically themselves. I thought this would be a great way to honor their spirit, wherever they are.”

Kennedy also aimed to pay tribute to their hometown and family in the opera. The performance is centered on the staff of a beauty salon based on the one in Middletown, Ohio, where Kennedy’s mother worked. 

“I’m always trying to find ways to connect with my family through my work,” Kennedy said. “I just want to honor my parents, family and people in my town, to see that these things they take very casually that are staples of a local community can be seen as operatic.”

The play contained three acts, all of which featured arresting combinations of dance, vocals and colorful lighting. The constant use of layered sound, whether it was the background instruments and singing, or the singers’ vocals and spoken lines, created unique combinations of sound that were intentionally un-harmonic at times.

“In an opera, a lot of things can happen at once, and it creates this cacophony, like women bantering in a beauty salon, that really lends itself to these traditional opera tropes,” Kennedy said. “An opera was the only thing that made sense.”

The opera’s first and third acts focused on the goings-on of the salon, while the second was an abstract display of music. Only the colorful lights on the performers’ fingers, and one’s mouth, were used to create visuals through movements reflected on the backdrop screen in an otherwise darkened space. 

The work was primarily an homage to an individual known as Wallace, a stylist at the Touch of Elegance salon — where Kennedy’s mother worked as a receptionist — and the first queer person Kennedy met.” — Aaron Royce

This was seemingly random but conveyed elements of fantasy to heighten the drama seen in traditional operas.

“I’ve been making operas for about four years, and it’s all about creating these fantasy worlds that I imagine to exist,” Kennedy said. “It’s like these dream spaces or dreamscapes, and through doing that I was constantly looking forward.”

Kennedy hopes that their opera leaves audiences with a positive impression of the operatic form, as well as the strength of racial and gender minorities. Overall, they anticipate viewers feeling empowered and creative from their work.

“We all can do whatever we want, and there’s space for us all to be as big and operatic as possible without trying to crush anyone’s spirit or creativity,” Kennedy said. “With just a touch of elegance, with a little bit of finesse, anything is possible.” 

To learn more about Richard Kennedy, visit peresprojects.com/artists/richard-kennedy/

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