“Stay Sweet” Nico Muhly’s New Opera Dark Sisters

Pictured left to right:  Jennifer Zetlan, Margaret Lattimore, Caitlin Lynch, Jennifer Check, Eve Gigliotti Photo by Richard Termine

By David Browning

New York, NY – I’m not of one mind when it comes to opera plots being ripped from the headlines. Law and Order” style opera plots seem to me to be very much like Movies of the Week or the ABC Afterschool Special.  I’ve been waiting for an opera based on “I Think My Name is Steven” or “Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack.”  But we live in an age when jukebox musicals top the charts in Broadway revenues and each decade gets its own remake of “A Very Brady Christmas”.  (Each starring Florence Henderson, who must have a painting in her attic or something.  But I digress.)

I bring this up because I saw Nico Muhly‘s and Stephen Karam‘s new opera Dark Sisters on Friday night.  The opera is loosely based on a story that was in the headlines not very long ago – women who were trying to leave the fundamentalist church of the Latter Day Saints.  In the opera, law enforcement and social service agencies have removed the children from the polygamous home of a man who calls himself a prophet.  Some of the “sister-wives” in the story experience a change in worldview as a result of losing their children and facing the outside world.  That’s it.  That’s the story.

Mr. Muhly is one of opera’s wunderkind composers these days.  (Emphasis on kind.  I was in college when this lad was born.)  He has worked with pop stars and groups like Björk and the indie band Grizzly Bear, as well as prestigious classical music ensembles such as the Britten Sinfonietta and the English National Opera.  His opera Two Boys (with librettest Craig Lucas) was premiered at the ENO last June and will play at the Met in the 2013/2014 season.  He has numerous recordings to his credit, and his list of compositions in genres ranging from church choir anthems to film and incidental music is long.

Pictured: Caitlin Lynch Photo by Richard TermineI’m not a scholar of modern composition styles, and I have made public statements about the surprise I experience anew each time I find a work written after 1850 that I like.  OK, that’s an exaggeration.  1924.  I’m not qualified to talk about Mr. Muhly’s compositional style or merits, but I am qualified to say I was moved by his opera, Dark Sisters.  Although weak in story line and arc, Mr. Karam’s libretto was strong in characterization and in affecting individual vignettes.  Sister-wife Ruth’s solo scene on a cliff was an amazing piece of acting, and the subsequent segue directly into the scene featuring the hymn “Abide With Me” (which I must say was very skillfully done by Mr. Muhly, even re-using some of the melodic motives and shapes after the hymn seemed to have ended) appeared to have caused an outbreak of hay fever in the audience.  Or tears or something.  The scene between sister-wives Presendia and Zina when the wives are left alone as the Prophet goes into the desert to do whatever prophets do in deserts, is rich in humor and irony, and reinforces what I’ve always said–that junior high school never really ends.  The scene when the wives are interviewed by an obviously shallow and opportunistic TV pseudo-journalist carried great impact both visually and dramatically, as the projections so beautifully used all evening featured close-up shots of each sister-wife as she was being interviewed, and each sister-wife struggled with the conflict between keeping on message, as instructed, and her own thoughts and feelings.

The entire cast was composed of very fine singer-actors.  Caitlin Lynch sang Eliza, whose worldview changes so much she leaves the family.  Ms. Lynch’s credits include traditional lyric soprano roles like the Countess, Fiordiligi, Alice Ford, and Micaela, all of which I would gladly pay to hear her sing.  Her singing was a pleasure , and I never once thought, ‘geez, this must be tough music to learn.’  (In truth, I never thought that at all, which is another bit of praise for Mr. Muhly’s skills.)  We saw her convincingly move from the woman with doubts to the woman of action.

I need to mention every singer, for they were all on the same high level.   Eve Gigliotti‘s Ruth, the emotionally unstable sister-wife, was heartbreaking.  Jennifer Check‘s finely sung Almera made me wish her role were larger, although she had some very moving moments, particularly during the TV interview.  Margaret Lattimore and Jennifer Zetlan sang Presendia and Zina, two de facto leaders of the group of sister-wives, and were both a pleasure to watch, particularly in their scene together.  Kristina Bachrach was affecting as Eliza’s teenage daughter Lucinda.

Pictured: Kevin Burdette Photo by Richard TermineKevin Burdette sang the Prophet and the TV host.  As the Prophet, he was stiff and skeevy and slimy, just the picture of the man who thinks he believes what he is saying about prophecy or faith.  To an outsider it’s obvious every move, every word is about control—maintaining absolute power over his household and the desperate fear of losing that power. The Prophet’s admonishment to the women to “stay sweet” appeared to have a Pavlovian effect on them. Mr. Burdette’s TV host was much more physically relaxed, but clearly very shallow and interested only in sensation and notoriety.  The characterization carried over vocally, for when playing the TV host Mr. Burdette’s singing seemed relaxed and comfortable, and when singing the Prophet it was a bit stiff–but I do not wish to imply it was bad in any way.

Conductor Neal Goren and director Rebecca Taichman deserve kudos.  Never once did I think about the orchestra—which means I perceived no problems or issues and the expected high level of playing was there—and the flow of events was smooth and and compelling.  Ms. Taichman and choreographer Annie-B Parson gave the women gestures to accompany certain catch phrases and movements at certain other times to illustrate their united commitment to the Prophet.  Set designer and video designers Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of 59 Productions deserve a huge ovation, as does lighting designer Donald Holder.

Do I recommend this opera?  Indeed I do. Would I see it again?  Probably, and I definitely look forward to hearing all of the singers again. Do I envision this opera being produced repeatedly? I’m not sure.  Am I humming the tunes?  No, not really, although “Abide With Me” is swirling around in my brain and comes bubbling up occasionally.  I definitely think this opera will be considered a success.

Photos by Richard Termine

Dark Sisters continues at Gotham Chamber Opera on November 15, 17, and 19th. More information about the opera and tickets »

Dark Sisters was co-commissioned by The Opera Company of Philadelphia and will be performed in Philadelphia in June 2012 – More Info »

David Browning is a singer and writer living in the greater New York City area.  He is the publisher of the opera blog Taminophile: www.taminophile.com