"Dark Sisters adds to the dialogue of what opera can be," said David Devan, general director of Opera Company of Philadelphia, which co-commissioned and developed the piece with the Music-Theatre Group and Gotham Chamber Opera. "It has great performance opportunities, a contemporary story with a gifted composer and librettist."
But is it good? Reviews of the New York City world premiere in November were mixed. Both critics and opera insiders felt the piece hadn’t yet crossed the finish line — perhaps reflecting the challenges of writing an opera that looks so familiar on the surface but borders on being unimaginable in a modern world where self-described "sister wives" lead circumscribed, isolated lives bound to a husband they also consider to be a prophet.
"It was hard to write," said composer Nico Muhly. "It’s important not to have a mockery of their faith. …" In 2008 "the polygamist women were saying on The Larry King Show, ‘Isn’t this America? Don’t we have religious freedom? We’re not bothering anybody. What’s the problem?’ It was important for this to not become a political tract."
"But it’s hard not to believe, when girls are being married at age 14, that there’s not an abusive component," said director Rebecca Taichman, who wonders whether the Mormon patriarchs are case histories in sexual addiction. Clearly, she’s not afraid of offending anybody.
"We’re creating theater, and it’s not theater for the Latter-day Saints community," she said. "They will not come to see this. It’s not in their belief system."
From the beginning, Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam emphasized that this opera isn’t about the mainstream Mormons but the splinter-group compounds in rural Utah, Texas, and Arizona that have received national attention in recent years, partly due to well-publicized government intervention, and partly because of the 2003 escape by one "sister wife," Carolyn Jessop, who has written memoirs revealing the sense and strangeness of that world.
What a curious subject, though, for this hyperintelligent trio of revisionist-minded Manhattanites. Muhly, now 30, is one of the most talked-about American composers; his other opera, Two Boys, is headed for the Metropolitan Opera after a London premiere. He’s one of the few composers with a major recording contract (Decca) and generates a steady stream of ballet scores, choral music, and orchestral works. Karam and Taichman are often found in the edgier environs of Off-Broadway.
Beyond the creators’ basic fascination with the renegade sect, Dark Sisters was partly born out of practicality: As a chamber opera, it had a 10-character limit. The pool of up-and-coming singers tends to be predominantly female. For research purposes, these remote polygamist outposts are remarkably well-documented from the inside out: Many of the women maintain detailed diaries. Muhly and Karam also made multiple visits to Colorado City, Ariz., where many such families live.
"It’s a fascinating time right now because so many of the men are in jail," Muhly says. "You don’t see men at all. It’s a very specific-looking place. It’s dusty. Nothing is paved."
How has that translated into music? Miles and miles of power lines running through the barren landscape inspired Muhly to write a barely perceptible 12-minute drone tone at the end of Act II. And in a culture where days pass with magisterial sameness, Muhly avoided clearly delineated recitatives and arias. "I wanted an aria to arise structurally, as naturally as if you found them," he said.
One problem with the New York production, in the minds of critics and opera professionals, was that the monotony of this rural life resulted in too much theatrical sameness. That’s one reason the Opera Company of Philadelphia remounting of the production — the first in the company’s new American Repertoire Program — represented a chance for the piece to redeem itself, and do so amid the Opera America conference, to be held here June 13 to 16. The Philadelphia company didn’t have the prestige of giving the premiere, but stands to get a more considered piece.
Yet as Dark Sisters went into rehearsal, composer Muhly had made only 2½ minutes of incremental cuts in Act I, resequenced one scene, and written 12 seconds of new music. None of the changes were workshopped due to scheduling conflicts. In some quarters of the opera community, this came as a mild shock — and appeared to be a missed opportunity.
Devan, however, believes the opera is on course.
"Did we get as many changes as we hoped for? I don’t want to dictate that from a curatorial standpoint," he said. "And like anything in a new work, there will be changes from the changes as we move from the page to the stage. You have to trust the creative team ... and give them the support that they need."
In other words, this ain’t Broadway — where mixed reviews prompt a severe dismantling that’s not always in the best interests of making art. Also, Muhly’s incremental cuts may be more important than they seem. "Two-and-a-half minutes represents a huge piece of real estate," he says. "Stage time is longer — and weirder."
Perception of the opera’s premiere may also have been considerably and subtly affected by the New York venue, the Gerald Lynch Theater at John J. College of Criminal Justice, which differs from the Perelman Theater in that it is not, acoustically speaking, an opera house. Taichman says the orchestra was muffled. Singers felt compelled to sing harder than necessary.
"I love this piece with all my heart," she said. "I’ve done a lot of musical theater where you go in and rip things to shreds. There was never the impulse that this was the thing to do here. There’s something so brilliant here. These two guys have gone so deeply inside this world. They’re putting out something that’s profoundly true."
And what if it’s not an improvement over the New York version? "I’ll be happy that I commissioned it," said Devan.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.
Opera Dark Sisters Opera Company of Philadelphia. June 13, 15 and 17 at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $21-$132. 215-893-1999 or www.operaphila.org.