Opera Company in virgin territory with new work on Mormon sect

Composer Nico Muhly is writing "Dark Sisters," an opera about a radical polygamist Mormon group.
Composer Nico Muhly is writing "Dark Sisters," an opera about a radical polygamist Mormon group.
Posted: October 28, 2010

Usually the home of the tried, true and traditional, the Opera Company of Philadelphia will announce Thursday that it is commissioning a new work from a composer who is as up-to-the-minute as classical music gets - Nico Muhly.

The 29-year-old former assistant to Philip Glass will write a new work titled Dark Sisters, to be presented in June 2012 as part of the Opera Company's series at the smaller-scale Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.

Dark Sisters' subject is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical Mormon splinter group that practices polygamy and is based in remote parts of the American West. The libretto by Stephen Karam (author of the Off-Broadway hit Speech & Debate) is partly inspired by detailed diaries kept by women living in such places, as well as the periodic law-enforcement raids, most recently in Eldorado, Texas, in 2008.

"It's an incredibly American story to me. It looks so extreme - people, mainly women, living in a very unforgiving landscape. It has always fascinated me . . . in the way it's related to basic questions of civil rights," says Muhly, who grew up in rural Vermont near the birthplace of Mormonism's cofounder, Joseph Smith. "There's a long history of government action and inaction. There's a complicated morality. You can't sum it up."

The adventurous nature of the commission - in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, which will premiere the opera in New York City in November 2011 - is no fluke.

"It's emblematic of everything we've been working on at Opera Company of Philadelphia," said executive director David Devan. "We're tried to expand people's thinking about what opera can be."

The announcement also comes at a time of dramatically increased new-opera activity in Philadelphia: the Academy of Vocal Arts premieres The Scarlet Letter, by Philadelphia composer Margaret Garwood, on Nov. 19, while Center City Opera holds a series of events (including a Nov. 5 panel at Philadelphia's Knapp Gallery) leading up to the April 2011 premiere of Danse Russe by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec.

OCP's Muhly project is not to be confused with another, larger-scale work that Muhly has written for the Metropolitan Opera titled Two Boys, for a world premiere next year at the English National Opera. The subsequent U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera is in the 2013-14 season, which means that Dark Sisters - the second of the two works to be completed - will be heard in the United States first, in New York and Philadelphia.

Even though the piece is only officially announced this week, Dark Sisters is virtually finished. Parts of it will be played Thursday night at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York. The opera's subsequent gestation will resemble that of a Broadway musical, with workshops and unofficial tryout performances. Though such practices are important for stage works, the precision required of chamber opera, said Muhly, particularly demands opportunities for revisions.

"Opera is really weird in the sense that you're handed the keys to the car and told to come back in three years," said Muhly. "But there's something you can't learn when working . . . at [a] desk. Pacing of the opera, for one. The things you learn are simultaneously really obvious but not necessarily things you would've picked up without doing it."

Born in Vermont and educated at Columbia University and the Juilliard School of Music, Muhly has collaborated with indie rock star Björk and worked intensively as conductor and editor for composer Philip Glass. But he has his own eclectic spectrum, as shown by his new album, A Good Understanding, full of Anglican-influenced choral works. His breakthrough was the 2008 disc Mothertongue, which led to his current major-label association with Decca.

Thus, his musical palette for Dark Sisters will be difficult to predict. "It's harmonious and discordant at the same time. You'll hear some of the textures from the choral tradition, but I'm not trying for musicological accuracy. It's more important for the [musical] landscape to be correct, to have this arid severity."

Muhly is quick to say "there are no Mormons in this opera," meaning that the characters are all from a radical sect that has been disowned by the mainstream Mormon church. Devan, in fact, hopes to have a dialogue with Philadelphia's Mormon community, much as the company did with African American church groups before its 2006 local premiere of Margaret Garner, an opera about slavery.

What gives Devan the most hope for success is the strong viewpoint projected in Muhly's works. "No matter what he does," said Devan, "he's trying to say something. And to be successful, opera has to have a strong point of view."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com

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