The Perch: A Talk Opera
Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch


Talk operas combine the arduous structures of rock operas and the improvisatory ease of talk poems [1]. They demand both the opera diva’s balletic rigor and the village storyteller’s vernacular charm. David Bowie partners David Antin, as fluid audio-tracks eclipse boxy stanzas, as whispered asides drown out pedantic paragraphs. Slang itself turns bel canto as the arts of phraseology fasten upon the aural text.

Had Plato possessed a tape recorder, had Warhol been offered access to online audio archives, the talk opera might have emerged at an earlier historical moment, freeing composers, philosophers, visual artists, and poets to socialize, collaborate, conjure up new talk operas. Traditionally impassive audiences may have contributed their own dialogic performances—no longer cowed by the concert hall’s, the lecture hall’s, the opera house’s enervating requirement of “undivided attention.” Still today, out of these most cultured domains has come this most colloquial of aesthetic and intellectual disciplines. Popular gadgets such as the voice-transcribing Googlephone will only encourage an increased production and proliferation of talk-opera libretti.

Of course the talk opera returns us to the extemporizing address of Homeric bards, of Roman orators, and mid-twentieth-century scat singers. Yet this form’s fruition necessitated the more recent advent of digital distribution, especially the pioneering efforts of hybrid internet sites such as UbuWeb and PennSound—projects that have helped to subsume poetry’s narrow readership within the broader audience of potential online listeners. Appropriately enough, moreover, our present epoch needs the talk opera as much as the talk opera needs our present. Epic utterances that leave no paper trail, talk operas serve as emblematic “green” texts: sating a mobile, omnivorous audience while saving trees and capturing (metaphorically, at least) their interlocutors’ carbon emissions.

Thus the talk opera stands as interdisciplinary form-of-the-moment, and dramatizes this fact by dilating the ephemeralities of vocal presence. For in the end talk operas are tragedies unwilling to conceal the creaturely fate of their principle personages, but also comedies celebrating art’s triumph over any such existential limitations. The set constantly shifts; the chorus intermittently upstages the star; the printed, permanent text faintly echoes a fleeting, orchestral fullness. Poet/critic/opera fan Wayne Koestenbaum writes of his interest in “the opera of taking the subway, the opera of deferred gratification…the opera of silence…the opera of the daily splash of eau de cologne…the opera of stupefaction, the opera of amnesia” [2]. Talk operas provide all of that.

Plot Synopsis

Between December 2006 and January 2007, we recorded forty-five-minute conversations for thirty straight days around New York City. Half of these talks took place at a Union Square health-food store which we call “W.F.” After a liberal sampling from the bakery cases and deli counters, we would stake out a table in the crowded dining-area, inconspicuously assemble a digital recording device and resume our cumulative dialogue concerning fellow consumers (their ingenious salad-bar combinations), the urban scene (as displayed through glamorous floor-to-ceiling glass) and the major aesthetic, ecological and interpersonal issues affecting our lives (terriers in turtlenecks, global warming, the germs we sensed circulating on each other’s breath). Other locations included MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera House, Central Park, Prospect Park and a Tribeca parking garage.

Hoping to complement Liminalities' special-issue “On Hospitality," we have prepared an excerpt from a conversation that occurred in Andy’s darkened bedroom. Two weeks of talking in the chaotic marketplace had worn us out, so we retired to a calm domestic setting for the night. As we spoke near the window, overlooking a neighborhood park, we began to reflect on various rooms in which we once had lived. The result is a kaleidoscopic, improvisatory investigation of domestic habit (Nietzschean in practice, and occasionally in substance). For when subjected to dialogic inquiry, even the sedentary-seeming concept of “home” yields ceaseless genealogical overturnings—conflating the private and the communal, the unscripted and the staged, the local character of Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the universal longing to get back to where one started from.


[1] For a discussion of the “talk poem,” see Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch, “Re-tuning: David Antin and the Audio Text,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 33.4 (2007): 195-206.

[2] Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press (2001), 195.

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