“Thank you for avoiding Chelsea,” RoseLee Goldberg, the founder and director of Performa, told a small audience gathered in her home last night. They had opted out of the gallery openings to see the artist Ragnar Kjartansson preview his upcoming Performa 11 commission, Bliss.
The piece, which will be staged in November as part of the fourth edition of Ms. Goldberg’s citywide performance biennial, will take the form of a 12-hour concert of the final aria in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Mr. Kjartansson calls it “the most beautiful music ever written by a human being.” He first heard the piece when he was eight years old and has been enraptured ever since. Accompanied by a full orchestra, a group of opera singers—including Kristján Jóhannsson, Mr. Kjartansson’s childhood hero—will perform the aria continuously from noon to midnight.
“RoseLee said to me, ‘Do your fantasy darling!’” Mr. Kjartansson told The Observer. He was wearing a double-breasted brown suit with big lapels and a bright tie that was a swirl of white and turquoise (“my Burt Bacharach tie,” he said). “It will be like a live human loop. I was raised in the theater so my experience with it was watching rehearsals: sitting in the dark and there’s the same thing happening over and over again. Someone comes into a parlor and says, ‘I don’t love you anymore!’ and then someone says, ‘Ok let’s try it again.’ So this is going to be a performance about the same moment, repeated.”
He has a thick accent and a big belly laugh. With slicked back hair and a bushy beard, he looks like he is built for opera singing. He stood beside a grand piano in the living room and told a woman sitting at the bench, “Let’s hit it. From the top.”
Mr. Kjartansson’s voice did not have the weight of a life-long classically trained singer—he has mostly sung in bands—but it did have a kind of tragic delicacy to it. He was always on key. The final aria features the opera’s count asking the countess for forgiveness after a series of indiscretions. The countess forgives him because Piú docile io sono—“I am more kind.”
“Contessa perdono,” Mr. Kjartansson sang, his voice filling the room.
When it was over he picked up immediately at the beginning. By the third repetition, the audience began to chuckle and he cut himself off.
“Et cetera!” he said.