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Onstage at the Black Cat on Tuesday, bandleader Ralph Russo stands back to drag from his cigarette as the members of his band, Kaos Koir, take over. Deep, driving drum beats fill the room. Chimes zoom in and fade out again, and the electric bass melds everything together. The sound is industrial—grungy but indefinable. “[It’s] what I call Digi-Op”—short for “digital opera”—says Russo. “Kaos Koir only does operas.”
Tonight is Kaos Koir’s debut of Kiss of the Goddess, an operatic rendering of the life of John F. Kennedy Jr. The performance takes the listener right through from “‘Daddy Where Are You?” (“That’s him singing from the uterus,” Russo explains) to “Sleep Safe,” a eulogy after Kennedy’s death last July in a plane crash.
Russo began the opera shortly after Kennedy died. “I don’t have much sympathy for our dead celebrities,” he says. “He was getting all this air time just because he was stupid and died. I was going to trash him.”
Then Russo changed his mind. “I realized he was really a strong person. He had a tough life….He couldn’t go out on a date without everyone taking his picture and conjecturing on his sex life. He had women going through his garbage….What a curse….It’s gotta be hard to grow up with that kind of pressure.”
Russo, a lawyer by day, sympathized when he discovered Kennedy had failed the bar exam three times. “I failed it two times, and I know how bad I felt when I knew— but no one knew except my family. With him, the whole world knew.” Then there is the lifetime of forced performances, including the announcement of his mother’s death to a sea of paparazzi. “His heart must have been broken,” Russo remarks. “But he was cool.”
The band works well together—mainly because Russo’s bandmates are several pieces of computer hardware. No dressing rooms are required; no fussy contract disputes arise. Rita, “elegant and petite, well-designed and sophisticated,” is a laptop computer and performs, as always, in a cool and unruffled fashion. As the looping rhythms mount in intensity, Russo taps Rita: The beat shifts and the mood changes. An adjustment on Trigger, a “cyberhorse” that helps Russo layer his sounds together, begins the next song. Communication among the members of the group is easy, but transportation is easier, says Russo: “My whole band fits in one black bag.”—Robin Bingham