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Nico Muhly Takes Opera in New Directions with ‘Dark Sisters’

by Lewis Whittington, Edge Philadelphia.

Composer Nico Muhly is just 30, but has already has three film scores under his belt, numerous commissions with orchestras, has scored ballets for hotter than hot choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Muhly even composed a cantata to Shrunk and White’s grammar bible “The Elements of Style.”

The New York based composer, who is no slouch in the style department, is also a prolific opera composer. Last year he received much attention for his opera “Two Boys,” which dealt with a detective investigating a murder of a teenager that leads her to a trail of clues on the Internet. The opera premiered at the English National Opera last summer and will next be seen at the Metropolitan Opera.
Nico Muhly

He is currently in Philly for the second run of “Dark Sisters,” a chamber opera he composed with librettist Stephen Karam (short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize this past year for his play “Sons of the Prophet”), about six women trapped in a renegade Mormon church commune called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Lean, taut direction

According to a story in the Huffington Post at the time of the opera’s New York premiere last year, “FLDS, one of the Mormon Church’s largest fundamentalist splinter groups — still holds plural marriage up as a main tenet of devotion. ’Dark Sisters,’ with libretto by playwright Stephen Karam, depicts not only the religious tumult these five FLDS women face, but also the hysteria of the national media in reaction to the raids.”

The work, a co-commission with the Opera Company of Philadelphia with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, premiered last winter in New York to wonderful reviews.

“Gotham Chamber Opera and the Music-Theatre Group give this work as superb a production as any new opera might hope for, with lean, taut direction from Rebecca Taichman and the sturdy guidance of conductor Neal Goren. Among a uniformly excellent cast, Caitlyn Lynch unfurled a shimmering soprano as rebellious wife Eliza, while soprano Jennifer Check and mezzo Margaret Lattimore lent firm dignity to supporting roles,” wrote critic James Jorden in the New York Post.
Where religion and politics meet Muhly was in a frenetic mood when EDGE caught up with him at the first orchestra dress rehearsal this week at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center. “When I’m in the middle of one thing, I’m desperately craving something else,” he explained.

Writing an opera about the place where religion and politics meet is something that Muhly relates to. In fact, he thinks all operas are political in one way or another. “I can’t think of one opera that isn’t political in some way. When you look at Rameau, Handel, Mozart, they were all looking at the world around them socially and politically. ’Cosi Fan Tutti’ is an incredibly political opera. Right now there is a flare up of interest about Mormonism, but the politics and discussions around it aren’t new,” he reminded.

The opera deals with issues of suppressed individuality and subservient women’s roles in the a Fundamentalist Church sect that split from mainstream Mormonism in the early 20th century largely because of the LDS Church’s renunciation of polygamy. Some of the source material for the opera is culled the two most famous raids on FLDS compounds, in 1953 and in 2004, follows the story of one of the women who tries to leave.

Unison speech patterns

Mulhy has been researching the history of the church for many years. “I read the diaries of some of the wives of Brigham Young; you think you could be reading something from the Old Testament or from today. Similarly, once you get in the world of what constitutes marriage it was always political, and about property, land. Marriage for love was a Victorian construct.”

Moral arguments aside, Mulhy had musical challenges writing six lead women’s roles “There was the acoustic challenge to keep them distinct, which we achieved partially through casting and by now putting them in each other’s way vocally,” he explained.

“One of the things that allowed me to unlock it was watching an interview that some of (fundamentalist) wives did on Larry King Live. They had unison speech patterns, which is musically interesting to me.

“There’s one man and women’s voices are echoing through these halls.

No boy sopranos

“Stephen wrote the libretto, before I did the music, so we had the foresight to tailor the parts for this cast, which is amazing, with six very different voice types.

“Caitlin Lynch plays Eliza, the woman who tries to leave. She has a different approach to how she deploys the beauty of her sound. Jennifer Check, who plays Almera, has this ethereal upper register and she’s a wonderful, comic actor in her middle range. The singer who plays Ruth, Eve Gigliotti, has this creamy and husky mezzo voice and there is this mad scene aria, which is the first thing I wrote for the opera.”

The orchestral template is “site specific… jagged and arid at points, there is some pioneer folk music floating around.”

He noted there have only been a few changes since the New York premiere. “When you are running opera there’s so much you can learn when it’s in front of an audience and you figure certain things out. The little things are unavailable to know until you are there in real time. No one turned into a boy soprano,” he joked.

Mulhy said that he tweaks things based on decisions the singer makes in performance as well. “You can see how adrenalin of a performance changes delivery, so you’re making subtle changes.

“That’s one of the things that makes opera so interesting… a singer reacting to a real moment onstage. It’s such a rush,” he said.

Rebecca Taichman is the stage director and Neal Goren, Artistic Director of Gotham Chamber Opera, conducts. Opera Company of Philadelphia premiere of “Dark Sisters” at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia.

“Dark Sisters” runs June 8 – 27, 2012 at the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, PA. For more information, visit the Opera Company of Philadelphia website.

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