For most of us, the strange saga of Bill OReillys sexual harassment of a female colleague dragged public discourse to a new low in the fall of 2004. Nobody ever really wanted to hear OReillys unorthodox suggestions for the amorous use of a loofahor, as he termed it, a falafel. But for the Seattle composer Igor Keller, the tawdry revelations held the promise of high art. Last year, Keller wrote an oratorio based on OReillys legal travails for a twenty-eight-piece chamber orchestra, twenty-six-voice chorus, and three soloists. The Washington Monthlys Markos Kounalakis and Peter Laufer spoke recently with Keller about the work, which premiered in Seattle in January.
WM: One excerpt has the lyric, Next time youll come up to my hotel room and well make this happen. Whats that about?
IK: That part is basically the straw that breaks the camels back. Andrea Mackris has decided to pursue charges against him because he has been so bullying and creepy for so long that she didnt feel she had any other choice. This almost comes at the very end of the work, the thirtieth of thirty-one parts. An oratorio is a musical dramatic work with no scenery, kind of in the vein of the Messiah.
WM: And what we hear comes from transcripts?
IK: Directly from the transcriptits the central charges.
I actually set about twelve pages of legal text to music.
WM: As you were researching this, what did you discover about the character of Bill OReilly?
IK: The strange thing was, when I began this work I really had no opinion about Bill OReilly. I knew that my mom liked him very much, to the point where she named her dog after him. I thought of it more as an interesting character sketch. But as I got deeper into the text, I realized its kind of indicative of whats going on in this country right now. This is the sort of thing that happens when a person thinks they have almost unlimited power, and is also delusional and paranoid.
WM: Its a combination of hubris and the classic Greek tragedian tradition.
IK: Exactly. I knew that the text would be dry, because its legalese, and anything drier than that would be the Sears catalog. So the music had to carry it. And OReilly gets all the best arias. One critic said that at many points youre actually rooting for OReilly, but you cant totally get on his side. You ultimately take the side of Andrea Mackris, because of all this crass stuff thats going on.
WM: Of course, the clich is that truth is stranger than fiction. But these days it does seem hard to actually satirize current events. Is this something youre seeing in theaterpeople increasingly turning to reality for material?
IK: My original inspiration for this was a song cycle by a pianist in San Francisco named Bryant Kong. He wrote a piece called The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld. Its Rumsfeld quotes set to music for piano and soprano. And I got thinking, Why cant I make OReilly sing? Because there are these blocks of text throughout the complaint where he speaks for a long time about certain things, be it how Al Frankens finished, or his Caribbean sex fantasies or whatnot. They were quite easy to set to music once you had the tune. The words just fell into place.
WM: Are you in contact with OReillys people so that hes familiar with what youre doing and puts you on the show?
IK: No. [Laughs.] He has long said that he will never speak of this incident again. Actually, thats the last part of the oratorio.
Markos Kounalakis, the president of the Washington Monthly, and author Peter Laufer co-host the weekly program, Washington Monthly on the Radio, from which this interview was adapted.