The brash young composer Nico Muhly – much to the surprise of many but probably not to himself – turned out to be right.
When his opera Dark Sisters was premiered in New York City in November, many believed the ever prolific Muhly (yes, even more prolific than his longtime employer Philip Glass) had rushed through the composition of a chamber opera about Church of Latter-Day Saints splinter groups that practice polygamy in remote outposts of the southwestern United States. The disappointment extended beyond the critics and operagoers hearing it for the first time on opening night. There was much grumbling within the industry that problems that were clearly apparent in the workshop preceding the premiere but hadn’t been addressed at all. Some of his fellow composers were secretly scathing.
Oh well. There was always the revival the following June at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, where the smallish, congenial Perelman Theater has come to be seen as one of the ideal chamber opera venues in the Northeast. Even then, Muhly, librettist Stephen Karam and director Rebecca Taischman declined to have another workshop. They were all busy and sensed that changes could be made in the few weeks of rehearsal prior to the Opera Company of Philadelphia opening.
And yet … Dark Sisters wasn’t just a hit with critics who were lukewarm first time around. The opera was a considerable popular success with audiences. Word of mouth was uniformly positive. Here was something fresh, challenging and new that wasn’t beyond the grasp of an average operagoer hearing it for the first time. And in Philadelphia – a place known to fear the cutting edge.
What changed? The Perelman Theater was acoustically better than the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at New York’s John Jay College where the piece was premiered. The direction better defined the power dynamics. The mostly-female cast more specifically articulated their roles as bereft “sister- wives” (as they refer to themselves in this LDS sect) whose children have been taken away during a state raid. In the second act, where they plead for the return of their children on a Larry King-style talk show, the theatricality and use of video was less satirical and more direct. The silliness of American pop culture took a back seat to the seriousness of the issues at hand and the sincerity of the sister/wives who had lived such retrogressive, circumscribed lives, hadn’t ever hurt a soul, and simply wanted their children returned.
But can you understand why – after Muhly gave a brilliant, breezy, “What, me worry?” interview (edited transcript below) in his Manhattan apartment prior Philadelphia rehearsals – one might have been skeptical?
Q: Given the freedom you enjoy in the ordering of musical events in concert works, do you ever feel tied down to a plot when composing an opera?
A: No. I feel enormously liberated. It means all my pre-compositional nonsense about making the structure doesn’t have to happen. With opera, it’s done already. The plot is the plot. You’ve solved the problem already and you know what’s going to happen in what order. Right now I’m writing a 20-minute-long piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and it’s very stressful. It’s hard to know what to do with 20 minutes. That feels like being tied down.
Q: But opera comes with an added challenge: Even the smartest composer and librettist don’t know it’s going to work until they get it in front of an audience. And then there’s the give-and-take of the collaborative process.
A: Stephen Karam and I had some pretty good luck. I asked for a very, very fast draft, a quick
sketch of the whole thing. What’s the one-paragraph version? Then we chose 4 or 5 scenes to flesh out. Once I get a paragraph or a stanza, I can figure out how long it’s going to be … Sometimes with operatic pacing, by the time you hear the end of a line, your brain can forget what the characters were talking about.
Q: How often did you hit a line where it just didn’t speak in music to you?
A: I’ve been lucky. Some 90 percent of the libretto jumped off the page and I knew exactly what to do. I’m a little obsessed, I wouldn’t say with realism in opera but I want the plot to make sense. I went to the Telemann opera version of Orpheus, and as I was listening to it, I thought, this doesn’t make one goddamn bit of sense at all … though it works as a piece of music. In this opera, we’re dealing with real people. There’s less poetic license. You can’t get away with that kind of Italian parlando. There’s a middle ground. And it’s trickier than you think.
Q: Pacing may be the central problem of English-language opera.
A: You have to find that line between poetic writing and informational writing. When you watch Baroque opera, you can smell an aria coming. We know we’re in ”recit” land. We’ve learned one more piece of plot information. And now we’re going to think about it. We wanted to get away from that. We wanted the aria structurally to arise naturally as if you found it. And I’m much happier setting prose, just personally.
Q: Theatrically, Dark Sisters is fairly traditional, with its linear plot, representational settings and characters …
A: As an audience member there’s a lot of free form opera that I love, love, love. I love Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach. That’s heaven! There are environments where I crave an evening of non-narrative art. I want to go see Laurie Anderson talking about the moon and Meredith Monk talking about Inuits. And it will be a beautiful poetic thing. There’s a generation of people who did that extremely well.
In terms of something I can make, I don’t think I’d be very good at that. I can’t do an abstract form about polygamy. I have so many opportunities this year to make abstract music. I just finished a ballet that goes backward and forward and all over the place and it’s great to to do that. But for me, as a personal philosophy it’s more interesting to write something where the singers feel like they can really own the character.
Q: How do you fathom the inner lives of characters so different from your own life?
A: Members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, both mainstream and not, are obsessive diarists.
The relationship with God is deepened through diarizing. It’s a pioneer mentality. Q: But how frank are they?
A: You can’t really tell. It doesn’t matter in a lot of cases. Sometimes these diaries are just lists of children who died. Is that frank or not?
The most famous escapee is Carolyn Jessop, who has written two books. They seem true. But there’s also a really strange divide between her ability to narrate calmly through accounts of abuse at the hands of sister-wives, But in her second book, there’s a streak of vindictiveness. She’s still talking how one of her sister-wives, who is now dead, might’ve stolen a hotel shampoo bottle in the late ’80s. From you can extrapolate that holding on to their own stuff is important. The frankness needs to be teased out in a slightly more critical read.
Q: The power dynamics must be clear, if peculiar.
A: Even when they’re explicitly saying the father/husband has all of the power, you realize that the first wife has power and acts as a surrogate for her husband. There’s a secondary matrix of power. Besides this physical and sexual power, there’s also money. You have a father with 26 kids that need to be fed on $300 a week. Both Stephen and I want to Colorado City (AZ). I’ve been there four times. It’s a fascinating time right now because so many of the men are in jail. You go there and you don’t see men at all. It’s a very specific-looking place. It’s dusty, nothing is paved, and prairie dresses …
Q: But how do you put yourself in their shoes?
A: I wouldn’t say I imagine myself in their shoes. I just tried to tell their stories from a position that’s close to them. To write the music for the prophet [the husband] was difficult. It’s easy to go into villain caricature. That’s not fair for us on the east coast to be saying, “Oh, you wacky polygamists!”
When I was reading some of these diaries, I saw that the husbands are stressed out by dealing with these fighting wives. They’re like harried businessmen. One of the complicated things in this sect … is that if a mother acts out, it can put in peril the salvation of her children. In many cases, the women bond so heavily with all the children that they autocorrect the sister wives who misbehave because they don’t want any of the family being compromised in heaven.
Q: So they tell each other, “Keep sweet.”
A: And it doesn’t actually translate as shut up. It’s this weird self-preservation thing. It’s
simultaneously a chastisement and “Please stay with me.”
One thing I didn’t want to do from day one: Have this turn into a bunch of gay people from New York playing with Barbie dolls and prairie dresses. It could easily turn into this mockery.
Q: Why this subject?
A: The topic arose out of the commission. Neal Goren, who runs Gotham Chamber Opera [one of the co-commissioners, along with Music-Theater Group and Opera Company of Philadelphia], says the best chamber operas have under 10 people onstage. Please, no children. We can’t afford it. Neal believes that it’s easier to find young women singers at this point in their careers than men. So what’s a place where you have one man and seven women? A polygamist home! I’ve been obsessed with this sect … it’s American and crazy. It runs parallel to the Lewis and Clark story and is more complicated with theology and personalities. I find it innately fascinating.
Q: How much did the piece evolve?
A: About 80 percent of the [libretto’s] first draft is almost exactly as we received it. Of that 80
percent, it’s musically unchanged since I first wrote it.
In Act II, we start in on the TV show, it’s a total change. The scary thing is that you have to have finished the expository material to deliver that scene. What that means is that Act I, by necessity, is front-loaded. And I have a neurosis that a first act has to be under an hour.
The other thing that changed between the workshop and the production is the arrangement of scenes in the first act. And that had to do with making sure that we didn’t have three ensemble pieces next to each other. After New York, there were things we could do to make Act I tighter. We took out two-and-a-half minutes and switched two scenes back to their original positions.
Q: Did you write any new music?
A: There’s one piece about 12 seconds long in the first act. It was a bridging moment.
Q: To many people, cutting two-and-a-half minutes and adding 12 seconds doesn’t sound like much.
A: Actually, two-and-a-half minutes is a huge piece of real estate. It was one of those things like looking at a bookshelf where you need to scooch things over and tighten them up. Stage time is longer and weirder. I don’t know of anyone who can judge that from a score. There’s just no way to do it. It’s even hard to judge from a recording.
Q: How did you feel about the New York reviews for Dark Sisters?
A: I didn’t read them. I stopped reading reviews a couple of years ago. The review of a piece is not for me. It’s not addressed to me. If somebody wants to say something at me, just call me. I take criticism really well. I never take it personally.
I used to be obsessed. Most reviews, good and bad, have factual inaccuracies that belie [sic] the fundamental idiocy of the critic. One referred to a violin when, in fact, it was a viola. They’re different.
Q: Couldn’t it have been a simple mistake?
A: No! No! No! It’s idiocy.
I gave up reading the arts section for Lent. I’ve lived through a couple cycles where the press
loves and hates you. In England it’s all codified. It’s like a switch.
Q: What sort of inner life are we not hearing in your music? I read that New Yorker profile. It didn’t tell me much about your personal life.
A: I work all the time. That’s what I do. There’s this weird misconception that the composer is going to be in some hut in a crazy hat, naked and with a pet bear, weeping all day with a candle.
Q: You compose much too much to keep track of so many accessories. Do you compose out of inner need?