Read About Nico Muhly and Dark Sisters, Coming in June
Composer Nico Muhly is known for an eclectic blend of work that ranges from orchestral and vocal work, to ballet, pop music, and film scores, including the 2008 Academy Award-nominated film “The Reader.” With an impressive list of collaborators, the New York-based composer recently debuted a new ballet with New York City Ballet and gifted choreographer Benjamin Millepied. He made his American operatic debut with the recent co-commission of Dark Sisters by Opera Company of Philadelphia and New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group- which was performed on the heels of his first operatic work, Two Boys, which debuted with English National Opera last summer and will next be seen at the Metropolitan Opera.
Muhly was born in Vermont, about six miles from the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, which led to the formation of Mormonism. Perhaps this helped to contribute to his interest in a sect that splintered from the mainstream Mormon Church in the early 1900s and became what is today known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the largest group in America that embraces polygamy. The community interested Muhly so much so that he decided to use it as the basis for Dark Sisters, with text written by celebrated playwright Stephen Karam which draws upon the flurry of media attention surrounding the two most famous raids on FLDS compounds – the 1953 raid at Short Creek, AZ, and the 2008 raid at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, TX. The audience joins the family just after the children of all five wives have been removed by state officials due to allegations of child abuse, and the women are left to cope with the aftermath and comfort one another.
“I came of age in the early 90′s,” Nico Muhly writes, “when the airwaves were filled with more salacious images of the practice—Tom Green and his family on Jerry Springer comes to mind as a notable, more prurient example. As an adult, though, I’ve dug deeper. As I learned more about Smith’s life, I realized that his story is a uniquely American one of striving for individual freedoms—sexual, political, religious—in the face of fierce resistance. Even more intriguing is the constellation of searing legal and personal arguments that condemned and defended polygamy in the late 19th century, echoes of which we see today in political dialogues and laws pertaining to states’ rights, gay marriage, freedom of religion, and the role of the government in the bedroom.
“When I approached Stephen Karam to collaborate on a libretto about a woman trying to leave her polygamist family, he immediately agreed, and we both plunged into the surprisingly shallow pool of available writings about modern American polygamy. We read personal histories by Eliza Wall, Carolyn Jessop, and Emma Smith, as well as case-studies by Texas Child Protective Services employees. We also perused less trenchantly-written pamphlets put out by anonymous FLDS educators, and anonymous blogs by defectors or would-be defectors. The resulting libretto stems from these sources as well as Stephen’s incomparably inventive imagination. The music — both vocal and orchestral — tries to honor the cultural specificity of the polygamist communities of the American Southwest: the arid desert, and the folksy warmth of the pioneer mentality."
Co-commissioned and co-produced by Gotham Chamber Opera, Music-Theatre Group, and Opera Company of Philadelphia, Dark Sisters had its World Premiere last November in New York City to rave reviews:
“Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group give this work as superb a production as any new opera might hope for.” - The New York Post
“[Conductor] Neal Goren drew rich sonorities and character from the Gotham Chamber Opera orchestra.” - The New York Times
Dark Sisters runs June 8, 10m, 13, 15 & 17m as part of the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater, and serves as the anchor performance for this year’s national OPERA America Conference here in Philadelphia.
Learn more about Dark Sisters
Learn more about Nico Muhly
Read The New York Times preview on Nico Muhly’s recent ballet with New York City Ballet