Ragnar Kjartansson's 12-Hour Performance Blissfully Leaves Mozart on Repeat

Ragnar Kjartansson rehearsing for "Bliss" (2011). (Courtesy Performa)

Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance Bliss had reached the halfway point and the actors were tired. They had been singing the final aria of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro–about four lines and two minutes of music–for six hours and they had six more to go. A conductor stood at the foot of the stage, instructing the 11 actors and 15-piece orchestra with exaggerated movements, thrashing his entire body and flailing his arms high in the air. He was drinking from a glass of red wine. “During the 12 hours,” the program thankfully said, “the audience is welcome to wander in and out of the performance.”

The effect of listening to two minutes of some of the most beautiful music ever composed over and over again is that it, essentially, makes time disappear. The first round of hearing the song is normal enough–simply a group of professional opera singers, dressed in big wigs and complicated embroidered clothes, performing Mozart. So what if they looked a little tired? By the fifth time the song cycled through, the audience was laughing aloud in their seats. As it continued they laughed more, but as it kept continuing, watching the performance became increasingly significant. We were seeing a group of singers and musicians suffer for this music, a fact made more poignant by the irony of it: this is the moment in which Figaro asks forgiveness of the lover he has wronged. She forgives him, but not without mentioning that she is “more kind” than he. Then the actors join together in a chorus about redemption. During Bliss, there was a look of desperation in the actors’ eyes, like they wanted the redemption they were singing about; that they knew they would get it, but they had to toil for much longer first.

By the fifteenth or twentieth cycle (we had, by this point, really lost count), the orchestra’s basist stood up and ran back stage. Probably to pee. The orchestra appeared to be doing a lot of drinking along with their conductor. The actors were eating in shifts. Every few minutes an attendant, dressed in the rococo style of Mozart’s opera, would enter the stage with a tray of food or a jug of water. Mr. Kjartansson–who was onstage singing with the actors, holding a taxidermied rabbit and wearing a long silver wig–happily gnawed on a chicken wing, gave the bone to the attendant, wiped the grease from his hand onto his shirt and kept singing.

By 7 p.m., everyone was visibly more tired. The oboe player handed his instrument to the man playing the flugelhorn and ran backstage. Again, probably to pee. One of the actors lied down on her back in exhaustion while another actor crouched down and tenderly cradled her head. They all looked excited and hopeful when an attendant brought out chocolate.

Figaro, played by the great Icelandic opera singer Kristján Jóhannsson, was certainly the most impressive sight in the room. The other actors were able to take short breaks, but he sang for nearly the entire night. His voice maintained a pure, tragic power, even though his face was weary. After eight hours of asking for forgiveness, he asked for forgiveness again.

“More!” someone in the audience shouted when he was finished. He started from the top. Ragnar Kjartansson's 12-Hour Performance Blissfully Leaves Mozart on Repeat