When Ken Roht was nine years old, he listened to opera on the radio as he drifted off to sleep in his quiet southern California suburb. For other kids his age, AM pop radio probably did the trick. But Roht was an odd duck from the start. He still is.
“I knew then that I wanted to be involved in opera—opera and international business,” Roht, now 45, said recently between rehearsals for his unlikely operatic debut with Pocket Opera Company at Symphony Space in New York City this past summer, singing the role of Eros in Pumped Fiction, John Eaton’s microtonal work about, of all things, a penis-pump doctor.
That left-turn kicker about international business is the kind of gnomic, dare-you-to-think-he’s-joking twist one learns to expect from Roht, a polymathic theatre artist who’s risen from the thankless trenches of Los Angeles’s mostly nonpaying, nonunion performance underground to become a sui generis auteur. Roht is as likely to turn up choreographing for major companies as singing, acting or directing.
Most often, it’s all of the above. In a series of genre-smashing works at L.A.’s Evidence Room (now the home of the Bootleg Theater), Roht has become known for spearheading an annual holiday extravaganza sponsored by the 99-Cent Only chain of discount stores. The store supplies the raw materials for sets and costumes; Roht and his co-conspirators supply the music and spectacle, from the demented-sugarplum visions of 2003’s Splendor: A 99-Cent Only Wonderama to last year’s choral-oriented Pageant of the Seasons.
Roht’s non-seasonal original work has tended to be more brooding: He Pounces, a dark, modern-dance meditation on male power, bowed at Evidence Room in 2003, and Echo’s Hammer, a multimedia work at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, portrayed the artistic process as a pitched, sexually charged battle between a pair of Beckettian clowns.
If Roht’s wide-ranging brand of off-kilter musical theatre has occasionally rubbed shoulders with the operatic, it’s hardly a surprise that he’s begun to land gigs in the opera world proper: choreographing for Long Beach Opera, directing a triptych of Offenbach one-acts at Bard College’s 2006
SummerScape festival in upstate New York, and this past summer performing, despite his lack of classical training, alongside seasoned opera singers from New York City Opera at Symphony Space. Regional theatres, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to California’s South Coast Repertory,have also come calling, mostly for his choreographic services.
Indeed, while he may not quite be the globe-trotting, opera-singing businessman he once envisioned, Roht has expanded his horizons and ambitions well beyond his L.A. base. The folks at Bard, for instance, liked his work on the Offenbach operas so much that in July they employed him as the “Spiegelmaestro,” or ringmaster, for the circus-like Spiegeltent they rent each year as part of SummerScape. And Roht dreams of taking his caustic dinner-theatre parody Orange Star Dinner Show, which he performed with his company at Bard, all the way to Asia—a connection that may not be so far-fetched, given his Pacific Rim berth.
Roht’s résumé, in other words, is as hard to pin down as his aesthetic. “Most of the time you go to the theatre and you say, ‘I’ve seen that before,’ or, ‘Gosh, I could have done that,’” says Peter Schneider, former president of feature animation at Disney who has since returned to his first love, directing and producing theatre. “What’s so extraordinary about Ken is that every time I see his work or even just talk to him—there’s no chance I could have done that. His mind is so interesting and unique and odd.”
Schneider, who sits on the advisory board for Roht’s Orphean Circus company and recommended him for last year’s Bard College job after he directed Regina there, compares Roht to a former colleague. “I worked with Charles Ludlam back in the ’70s,” Schneider continues. “I find that this outrageous kind of theatre needs to be grounded in some reality for it to work. Ken’s work is over the top and visually magnificent, but it’s always grounded in reality.”
“Ken goes past pretty into real,” agrees director Stefan Novinski, who hired Roht to choreograph his production of A Little Night Music at South Coast Rep (running through Oct. 7). “There’s no gloss. Even when his work is covered in camp, there’s no aesthetic distancing. It’s easy to hide behind four box steps and a parallel gesture. But Ken’s stuff, while always precise and beautiful, is always human. It’s always a little too real.”
“A sort of ‘low’ sensibility informs his imagination, but he builds it into something sophisticated and extraordinary,” says Tambra Dillon, director of Bard’s Fisher Center. “Plus, he’s a sponge. Working on the operas here was really fascinating for him, and for the singers, whom he had doing things they’d never been asked to do before.”
“He took to it like a duck to water,” confirms Cori Ellison, staff dramaturg for New York City Opera, who was hired to work with Roht on the Offenbach one-acts and who lobbied for his casting in Pumped Fiction. “His learning curve wasn’t at all about the integration of music and theatre; I was there to help him with the language, with operatic tradition, how best to work with opera singers. He really has a sensitivity to the fact that music-theatre is different from every kind of theatre—that once you add music, it really takes over. Only a director who has a sensitivity to music can do that.”
Roht draws his sensitivities from two wildly divergent sources: his years as a dancer and singer in a squeaky-clean troupe called Young Americans, which brought Lawrence Welk–styled musical pabulum to California trade shows, and his long apprenticeship with experimentalist Reza Abdoh, the late Iranian émigré whose transgressive, coruscating avant-garde productions in the late 1980s and early ’90s included several works at Los Angeles Theatre Center (The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, Bogeyman) and site-specific plays in New York (The Law of Remains, Father Was a Peculiar Man).
“It’s all a bastardization of musical theatre, don’t you think?” Roht says of his aesthetic. “I’ve never studied anything. The only thing I do know is musical theatre and then Reza—he gave my musical stuff a context, objectified it, so that I could look at it very specifically and go, ‘Oh, this dance step does this, and then I can explode it.’ It became deconstructionist, I guess.” But Roht is no gloomy postmodernist—he knows how to give good entertainment value even as he takes the elements of performance apart.
“If you sing four-part harmony, you’re golden,” Roht says. He means it both literally and as a metaphor: “If you give people something that’s pleasing, you can get away with anything.” According to a frequent collaborator, composer John Ballinger—who’s given the music for many of Roht’s 99-Cent shows a glistening, cartoonish bounce—the extra “anything” that Roht gets away with is what sets him apart.
“He’s content to throw a ton of stuff at the audience and let them figure out what it all means,” Ballinger says. “It’s like, ‘What is this?’ And he’s like, ‘You bought the ticket.’ He’ll push buttons that don’t get pushed a lot.”
If he’s part provocateur, Roht is also equal part hustler, lining up corporate sponsorship for his work when he can (L.A. Eyeworks supplied the colorful shades for Orange Star) and shilling for grant money (like the $45,000 he received from Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects in 2003). Roht has had to have such producing savvy to realize the scale of his visions.
In fact, perhaps the best way to sum up his work—and to hint at the material challenges that dog his career—is that Roht is a performance artist who never works solo. Imagine Baz Luhrmann or Busby Berkeley, or Pina Bausch, for that matter, working in a 99-seat theatre where the sets and the performers’ time are essentially donated. It’s a feat that Roht has pulled off with astonishing consistency—and the scrappy integrity and versatility these intense, inspired experiences have bred in him are clearly standing him in good stead as his opportunities, and budgets, increase.
“I guess it’s a muscle I’ve developed, but it’s really bizarre sometimes to think that this is the direction I went: making these big-ass shows in a little Equity Waiver theatre,” Roht marvels.
Blame it on the opera.
Rob Kendt is an arts journalist living in Brooklyn.