A “post-Christian nihilist pop opera” sounds like a strange, nearly impossible amalgam to synthesize. But for Brooklyn-based composer Matt Marks and his chief co-conspirator, vocalist MELLISSA: Hughes (both raised in the Southern Baptist tradition), The Little Death—which Marks began writing in the summer of 2007—is the result of relentless “tinkering” and indiscriminately drawing from a reservoir of dizzying musical touchstones and the moods and emotions they engender. And when the influences include the classic hymn “Morning Has Broken,” gospel mainstays “He Touched Me” and “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” Japanese pop (or J-pop), Christian counterculture musicals of the late ’60s and early ’70s, techno, the Moral Majority–tinged “contemporary Christian” vocal stylings of ’80s Sandi Patty and ’90s Point of Grace, and hip-hop—all filtered through Marks’s preoccupations with the horror genre, the sexualization of Christian iconography, and what he refers to as “fundamentalist, roots-based religion and music culture taken to this twisted pop culture extreme”—well, that’s a recipe for cataclysmic drama.
Over the past three years, The Little Death: Vol. 1 has seen numerous incarnations. The most recent manifestation of the opera is twofold: a full-length album, released by the indie-classical label New Amsterdam Records on May 25, and a fully staged production directed by Rafael Gallegos, first performed at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO on March 19. A more extensive realization of the Gallegos production receives an auspicious two-week run at Incubator Arts Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan (formerly the Ontological Theater) from July 8 to 17.
Audiences may wish to recalibrate their expectations. “In Little Death, we get ridiculous,” says Marks. “We get cutesy, we get scary. We’re not just trying to rock out and be cool the whole time. And I think that’s to its credit, but I think it’s probably gonna be a hump for people to get over…I think being conspicuously and determinedly emotional is to some extent dangerous in our scene. The one thing that still bothers me about pop music and indie rock and all this stuff like that is this idea that you have to be really cool to do it and I think a lot of listeners have this idea—they want this person to be this ideal. Like Bono, for example—he’s just always this cool guy, even though he gets sentimental at times. And actually, one of the things that I respect about Christian music and Christian pop music is that they’re willing to get sentimental. They’re willing to not look cool.”
The opera’s storyline, like its libretto, is minimalist and cryptic. The non-religious Boy (Marks) becomes enraptured with the Girl (Hughes), a Christian with strong convictions. The ensuing romantic engagement plays like a heated negotiation between unfettered physical attraction and the sexual purity that subservience to God requires.
But the action in Vol. 1 begins at the end, with an unsettling reality: Boy shoots Girl.
DANIEL J. KUSHNER (RAIL): I think the most literal, visceral connection to the tradition of opera is that really verismo-esque action happening right at the beginning.
MATT MARKS: Totally dramatic, yeah. And I feel like that’s pretty standard in opera. But what I really like about putting that there is it kind of taints the rest of the album with this flavor of violence or grief, so when you hear the following song, “I Don’t Have Any Fun on My Own,” which is really poppy and basically like happy indie-pop, you know that this girl was just shot by this guy in this really violent, twisted way. And so when you hear songs like “I Like Stuff,” which is extremely positive and happy on the surface, it still has that flavor of “Okay, we know this is going to a violent end.” And I really like that. It’s a really broad stroke, but it kind of paints everything with this twisted coating, that you know that it’s eventually gonna end in a messed-up way.
RAIL: As the opera continues it seems likely that Boy has bought into this Christian code language that allows him to conceal his all-consuming lust for Girl as fervent religious devotion to God. And I was wondering, MELLISSA:, whether you think that your character goes through a similar transformation, albeit possibly from the other side, where your religious devotion—which you know and are comfortable with—masks your attraction to him? Or do you see her as being more steadfast or piously aloof?
MELLISSA: HUGHES: I think in the beginning she is steadfast and piously aloof.
MARKS: Sorry, I want you to answer this, but one thing that I would change is that it’s not so much a mask as it is a fusion. She’s not hiding her sexuality behind religion; she’s basically kind of enfolded it inside of [religion]. So religion becomes sexual.
HUGHES: I think it’s sort of a channel—there’s nowhere else to go. [Her sexuality] is a part of her that is untapped and unexplored. And so it’s just always kind of gone there, ’cause everything goes there. And then, in her relationship with him, that begins to change, so I would say there is a transformation that happens.
MARKS: You can tell, MELLISSA: sings a lot of these songs in this hyper-sexualized manner. She has this very intense, sexually charged energy in “He Touched Me.”
HUGHES: It comes very naturally. That’s kind of the way that you sing. I grew up singing “Special Music,” which was right before the sermon, so somebody gets up and they grab their microphone, and they say something that happened to them this week, and then somebody in the back presses PLAY. And you have your backing vocals in a medium key and you just go off. And it always felt really dirty to me. It didn’t feel inspiring. I felt that it was, in a sense, musical masturbation, that I was preparing people for God’s word, but I was—
MARKS: Good dirty, or bad dirty?
HUGHES: Bad dirty, very bad dirty—that I was sort of manipulating them musically in order to have this emotional and spiritual response, which I think is what we do as musicians anyways, but because it’s under the guise of religion it felt very strange.
MARKS: And actually, that whole music-as-function thing, music-as-manipulation, is a huge theme in this…I really love making people feel sentimental against their will. And I think that’s way more subversive than—kind of the modus operandi of a lot of composers nowadays is kicking ass and making people feel pumped and angry: “Let’s kick ass with new music.” I’m really the opposite; I think you can actually mess with people’s heads way more by going the sentimental route, playing with their heartstrings.
RAIL: Was there a difference in who you believed your characters to be before you started working on Rafael Gallegos’s staged version, as opposed to afterwards? Did his direction broaden your perception of who your characters are?
MARKS: For me, yeah, definitely. And I think it definitely added life to it ’cause we kind of had to. When you listen to that album, it’s very surreal, at least how I knew of it. Maybe people listen to it in different ways, but I’m not a very visual-minded person, so I never really pictured these scenes actually happening. [Rafael] brought some semblance of reality, while maintaining the spirit of surreality. So for example, “I Like Stuff” was more of a pop song than a theatrical song, in that we’re just kind of listing things that we materially like. And what he did was he turned that into a date montage, so it actually showed the passage of time, which made a lot more sense.
HUGHES: Right. I think that’s his strongest contribution to this. It’s the hardest libretto to work with, and it’s just, “How do we get this passage of time across to the audience?” And he totally did it, with very limited resources, and kept the spirit of this Brady Bunch variety hour that we were after.
RAIL: Does manipulation better ingrain within the audience the intellectual/psychological mindset of the characters themselves?
MARKS: Yeah, very much so. One thing that drives me crazy about movies—and a lot of other media, or musicals—is that the music that you’re hearing tends to be in commentary of the action. So when the bad guy comes on the screen, there’s scary music. So when the bad guy is there and singing, the music is frightful because you’re supposed to be frightened of the bad guy. But the bad guy’s perspective is not necessarily fear or horror. Often the bad guy is working in his interests, and often those interests are sentimental or contain a lot of love—a lot of complexity. So I really try to get into the perspective of it. It’s arguable, in “OMG, I’m Shot,” how much of the sentimentality, how much of the happiness or exultation is in Boy’s mind or Girl’s mind—but that is the perspective in it. Whereas in a movie, somebody gets shot, it’s like DUHN-DUHN-DUHN! Oh my God, it sucks. But the emotional perspective in “OMG, I’m Shot” is one of love and care and growth and celebration—and that’s definitely how Boy views it. And the question is: “Does Girl view it that way as well?” And that’s what is answered in Vol. 2.