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David T. Little and The Crossing probe an untouchable custom with 'SIN-EATER,' a "ritual grotesquerie"

A table scene from 'SIN-EATER,' David T. Little's piece for The Crossing and Bergamot Quartet.
Maria Allen
A table scene from 'SIN-EATER,' David T. Little's piece for The Crossing and Bergamot Quartet.

The “sin eater,” a ritual role practiced in Wales, Ireland, Bavaria, and parts of the United States up to the 19th century, falls somewhere between scripture and the script for an intentionally repulsive Peter Greenaway art film — though its root cause, the belief that earthly sin clings to a soul beyond death, dates back to antiquity. According to custom, an individual was hired to consume the sins of the newly deceased by eating bread placed upon the corpse to absorb them. The sin eater, usually a poor outcast, was paid for the service, while at the same time shunned by the community that compelled it.

Composer David T. Little was seized by this intrinsically equivocal practice from the time he first learned about it some 15 years ago. That fascination now reaches fruition in SIN-EATER, an evening-length work for chorus (with some members adding percussion and synthesizer) and string quartet, jointly commissioned by the audacious new-music choir The Crossing and Penn Live Arts. Joined by the Bergamot Quartet, the choir will present its world premiere on Saturday and Sunday at the Prince Theatre.

At first brush, the sin-eater lore was a curiosity, something Little filed away for future use. “Around 2018 or so, I start to become aware of reports coming out about people whose work was causing them physical harm or trauma,” he tells WRTI. Examples included soldiers, pandemic first responders and essential workers, and content moderators compelled to sift through sometimes literal horrors on social media.

The archaic vocation had already served as a metaphor in novels, films, and beyond over the years. A murderous vigilante called the Sin-Eater was central to an especially impactful 1985 Spider-Man story arc, “The Death of Jean DeWolff.” More recently, the custom was cited in the 2012 feature film The Bourne Legacy, in metaphorical terms.

For Little — an artist closely associated with intense, provocative operas and vocal works that unflinchingly explore social, political, and ethical themes — the notion of professional pariahs shunned for the roles society compels them to play was revelatory.

“At that moment, it all sort of clicked: We have a world where we still do this thing,” he says. “And knowing The Crossing, and the way they think about programming, I thought it would be something they would be interested in.” Little was familiar with the choir’s mission and work, having composed dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet for the ensemble’s 2016 Buxtehude project, Seven Responses.

Donald Nally, artistic director of The Crossing, recalls finding Little’s proposal fascinating. “Turning the topic of what the original Sin-eater refers to into a kind of modern metaphor is a beautiful way to walk us through the fact that all the things we find really challenging about the world we live in and the way we treat each other are also historical,” Nally says. “We don't really seem to change. We just change the methods; the intentions don't seem to change, because we don't learn anything.”

The Crossing, led by Donald Nally
John C. Hawthorne
The Crossing, led by Donald Nally.

Once Little started creating SIN-EATER, the work grew ravenously. “Originally it was meant to be a 30-minute piece,” he says, “and then it kept expanding as the scope of what I was looking at kept expanding.” Collaborating closely with Nally and the singers of The Crossing in a series of workshops, Little refined and revised the work-in-progress, seeking maximum clarity, expressiveness, and impact.

Building from a core notion of food as a metaphor for power and wealth, the piece became a broad, nuanced, and often profoundly unsettling examination of how some members of society are compelled to absorb toxicity and terror so that others can live free and unharmed.

Rather than enlisting a librettist, Little compiled and adapted historical accounts and literary sources to assemble the script for what he termed “a ritual grotesquerie.” To consider soldiers lured into literally life-endangering situations by the promise of steady pay and professional prospects, Little drew upon materials he’d compiled for an earlier milestone work, Soldier Songs, for which he’d interviewed military veterans, and then balanced those accounts with poetry by Stephen Crane and Wilfred Owen.

David T. Little, who composed his new choral work 'SIN-EATER' for The Crossing and Bergamot Quartet.
Merri Cyr
David T. Little, who composed his new choral work 'SIN-EATER' for The Crossing and Bergamot Quartet.

Other writers whose work Little adapted include Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronome whose most famous aphorism — “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” — opens SIN-EATER, and Jonathan Swift, whose savage essay “A Modest Proposal” becomes even more macabre by its placement, immediately after a treatise on proper butchery.

Jarring transitions and juxtapositions enhance the impact of SIN-EATER: A somber, poetic section about a health-care worker at the apex of the pandemic gives way to a razor-sharp evocation of the horrors that a social-media moderator routinely spares us from seeing. The final section, “Eucharist,” brings the moral and liturgical dimensions of the work into intense focus. The texts Little selected, and the way he put them together, help to convey a kind of moral weight that runs through much of his oeuvre. Yet he refrains from rendering judgment. “I want to be involved in bearing witness,” he says. “That is a way that I think we can be politically engaged as artists, without falling into this trap of being preachy or polemical.”

For Nally, Little’s nuanced, dramatic approach is ideally suited not only to a season-long focus on sacrifice, but also to the ensemble’s entire mission, as exemplified in recent projects like Ted Hearne’s FARMING and Shara Nova’s Titration.

“We’ve commissioned pieces about wealth distribution, gun violence, Supreme Court decisions, and lots of things about the environment and climate change,” Nally says. “And yet, I’m very careful to work with composers who do not affirm our morality — I’m not interested in that. The questions are left unanswered, usually. But the music contextualizes them in ways for us to go away and think about them.”

David T. Little’s SIN-EATER will be performed on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 and 7 p.m., Harold Prince Theatre, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street; purchase tickets.

Steve Smith