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A hearty show about failure we could all do with watching

It's the glorious imperfections that bring us closer.

Brian Lobel has failed an awful lot to get where he is - an international performance artist. He's about to present his latest work, 24 Italian Songs and Arias as part of the Circus Circus Circus season. It's a production about failure and inspiration - dealt with Lobel's kooky panache, live opera, a stunning cast of singers. Here we catch up with Brian ahead of the one-off show at Rich Mix (8 Nov).

Run-Riot: There’s an unusual back story behind 24 Italian Songs and Arias. Please tell us how the piece came about.
One of my longest standing professional sadnesses was that my mother always hated my solo performance work. Whether it was about my cancer (which she was uncomfortable laughing about) or filled with obscenities or stories about my sexual history (my work is tame by comparison but my mother is quite wonderfully gentle), or even if it's just political, I always carefully curated the conversation about my work to my mother. I love her dearly and just know that it's sensitivities, tastes and upbringing that got in the way. But making work that my mother couldn't see or wouldn't want to see made me feel like... a failure.

Performance artists don't have conflicts, they have inspiration. So I decided to take my art practice and see what would happen if I made a show about that failure I felt with my mother, WITH my mother. Put her in it, see if that would make her like it. Or at least give us an opportunity to talk about it.  So we did. And my mother was in the very first drafts of 24 Italian Songs & Arias, in 2015, when it was nominated for the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. We performed at the Royal Opera House Crush Room, with a cast of 8, all dressed to the 9s. The work was originally performed all in Italian, and was me, Gwen, a boy, and my mother. My mother sitting silently throughout the show, until the end when she stood up and (in Italian, which she DOESN'T speak) talked about failure from her own perspective.

We didn't win the Award, but it definitely succeeded in changing the conversation between me and my mother. She gained a new appreciation of the work that goes into making a project, and I definitely gained an appreciation of my mother as a strong willed, independently-thinking force. What a treat it was to know my mother like this.

With all that love and learning confirmed (we did a few gigs together)... I fired my mother. The reality is that she lives in New York, doesn't LOVE performing, and doesn't want to tour or be available. So I fired her. And rewrote the show using all the main themes we explored. Instead of her being on stage with me, she is discussed, but now with my new collaborators Gweneth-Ann, Allyson, Naomi and others, I think we actually go much much further, deeper and realer. Now, instead of this being a work that my mother likes because she's in it, it's a work that my mother has inspired and which she and I would both like to see. That feels like such an exciting way for me to build a show, and think about the audience for my work.

Run-Riot: How did you meet Gweneth-Ann Rand? Also, who are the other artists taking part?
Brian: I asked a friend who designs sets for opera who was the boldest opera singer they knew, and a week later I was in a meeting with Gweneth-Ann. It was amazing to me how different 'failure' as a concept was for me as a performance artist than for her as an opera singer. While our differences in gender, race, nationality, etc are relevant to the work (and discussed), it was most exciting to me about our different professionals/professional cultures, and how this frames failure in very different ways.

The other artists involved are Allyson Devenish (accompanist), Naomi Felix (soprano), and a few more surprises that would be spoiler alerts if I were to say.
Run-Riot: The work is part of Certain Blacks presents Circus Circus Circus festival, how does a show with internationally renowned opera singers fit in with the programme?
Brian: To me, circus and opera are - more than any other forms of art - both built off a beautiful collaboration between artistry and raw skill. For me, flips and hangs and twirls and hulas look like how Gwen's trills or operatic runs sound. And it is this mixture of artistry and raw skill that is at the heart of 24 Italian Songs & Arias, which makes it a really exciting companion to all the other work in the programme.

Run-Riot: Has creating 24 Italian Songs and Arias made you think differently about the concept of winning and awards in general?
I am fine with never winning awards.
(I want to win awards.)
If I never win an award, I will be fine.

Of course, it's a push/pull. One doesn't want or need external validation, but it can be thrilling sometimes. Or I imagine it would be. I've still not really won an award. It's fine. It's fine.  But it'd be finer if I got an award.
Run-Riot: Does 24 Italian Songs and Arias have any other performances booked and what else are you currently working on?
Brian: This is our last development on 24 Italian Songs & Arias for a bit, but it'll definitely be back sometime soon. In other projects, I've just completed BINGE at Fierce Festival, and am off to a few other countries soon (China, maybe Russia, and elsewhere in the UK) to bring adaptations of my Fun with Cancer Patients project. Exciting times a-brewing.


Certain Blacks Festival 2019 / Brian Lobel
24 Italian Songs and Arias
Friday 8 November, 8pm
at Rich Mix, London
Tickets and info: richmix.org.uk

24 Italian Songs - 3 Minute Trailer from Brian Lobel on Vimeo.

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