Nico Muhly’s New Opera Explores Polygamy and Sexual Exploitation

11/14/2011 3:35 PM |

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Dark Sisters, a moving and mournful new opera by composer Nico Muhly and playwright Stephen Karam, is clearly inspired by Texas officials’ raid of the YFZ Ranch in 2008, which resulted in 468 children being temporarily removed from their families and placed into state custody. Like much of America was at the time, the opera is sympathetic to the grief of mothers separated from their children, and it’s also willing to give fair hearing to arguments about religious freedom. But, ultimately, the artists strongly side with sexually exploited girls, forced into marriages when still underage. The redoubtable Caitlin Lynch stars as Eliza, fourth wife to a man called Prophet, who lives with his family on a ranch recently raided by authorities; the children have been taken, including Eliza’s only daughter, which has shaken her foundations—her faith not only in religion but in God itself. Then she learns her 15-year-old daughter is to be wed to a man almost four times her age. Driven to save her child, Eliza is also stirred by the pioneering spirit responsible for settling this country and its Western frontiers: a curiosity of what lies beyond boundaries, whether oceans, mountains, rivers, or the front gate.

This is a very American opera, an American story about the conflict between the laws of God and men set to an American brand of music. Muhly’s score evokes Aaron Copland but also slyly subverts the hyper-Americanness: bright folk-ish melodies are twisted together until they darken; minor and dissonant flourishes suggest a corrupted core. (The music often sounds almost ethereally eerie; five female voices will do that.) Leo Warner’s sets contribute to the mood: the inclined stage is unsettling, like a canted camera angle; the projected skies are ominous; Donald Holder’s lighting is sharp and moody.

But the work isn’t just all grand themes; it’s also a rooted psychological study of wounded women, mothers unbalanced when denied their defining function of mothering. (Stephen Schwartz’s recent Seance on a Wet Afternoon explored a similar kind of character.) Dark Sisters delves into the jealousies between wives, the loneliness and desperation of mothers who have lost their children, whether to the law or to the grave. Act II features the wives’ group appearance on a cable-news talk show, hosted by a character called “King.” The women’s lines overlap in pretty harmony, as they offer talking points and show solidarity—they’re presenting a unified front to the world, an image of normalcy, all projected through consonance and harmony. It’s broken, of course, by Eliza, who confesses to practices of underage marriage. “This is amazing television,” King sings. Ditto for new opera.

Dark Sisters will be performed again Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. More info here.