M. Lamar introduces genre of political goth opera

M. Lamar performed his multimedia goth opera Funeral Doom Spiritual: For Male Soprano, Piano, and Electronics Saturday evening at Tommy’s Place and the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, following his video installation at the  ONE National  Gay and Lesbian Archives and Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s discussion of Robert Mapplethorpe’s documentation of the black male form.

His performance consisted of an operatic narrative of black death, murder, and subsequent “deathlessness” under a white supremacist regime in the apocalyptic future 100 years from now. Utilizing a hyperbolic goth and heavy-metal aesthetic, the accompanying video featured theatrical images of a black man in a coffin, black people in cages and flames occluding cathedral windows — all presented in a digitally glitched black and white format. He played the piano as he sang and also featured the auditory mixings of musician Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.

After the performance itself, Lamar was joined by Syracuse University professor of law and LGBT studies and fellow musical collaborator on this piece, Tucker Culbertson, for a post-show discussion and audience Q & A. This section of the show was by far the most engaging for those in the audience not intimately familiar with opera or Lamar’s previous work. Lamar expounded his theories of white male fantasies of the black male form, indicated by both hypersexualized depictions by artists like Mapplethorpe and by Darren Wilson’s testimony that Michael Brown “looked like a demon” as he approached the police car. He referred to these imaginings of blackness by white viewers as “two sides of the same coin,” each fetishizing and stereotyping black men in the same ways.

However, he did not directly address his choice of subject matter in relation to the medium he favors — how exactly goth, metal and opera evoke the black psyche in the face of white supremacy. During the Q & A with the audience, several attendees were quick to point out that historically speaking, metal as a musical genre had been biased toward white supremacy. Lamar explained that following his exit from Yale’s graduate art program, he discovered that the punk and goth music scenes were very closely tied to the Southern Negro spirituals he grew up with in that bleak and often macabre imagery thrived in both genres.

As for his focus on gothic imagery to depict his subject matter, Lamar described it to one questioner as a compulsion, something he must do to continue living. He seemed completely at ease addressing both the more academic and historical aspects of his work as well as the deeply personal — tearing up at one question that asked him to clarify his movement from punk into opera. He explained that at the point that he became romantically involved with his now art director, Sabin Michael Calvert, he became more interested in the intimacy of opera rather than the aggressive confrontation of punk music.

This craving for intimacy seemed clear in his eagerness to answer questions, requesting, “just one more” three times beyond when the house asked him to stop. He lingered around the space as well, chatting with event staff and eager audience members long after the event ended. His very candid and intelligent discussion of his performance definitely achieved this intimacy with the audience and his artistic choices were for the most part illuminated.

However, his performance alone fell somewhat flat. He himself admitted after the show that opera is by no means a populist art form, but the choice of opera rather than more popular forms like punk, rock or even gospel-style sound was perhaps more difficult for many to connect with. Furthermore, though the theme of black death and deathlessness remains relevant through the Black Lives Matter movement today, his works are largely based in historical events like slavery, which in some ways removes the sense of urgency from his social critiques.

All in all, M. Lamar’s event was highly successful and thought provoking, but his artistic work requires extensive explanation to become accessible and relevant.