Chamber Orchestra & Solo Voices, Approx. 100 minutes
When Stephen Karam and I set out to write Dark Sisters, the FLDS (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) had been all over the news. The sect — which split from mainstream Mormonism in the early 1900’s — is very media savvy, despite the visibly anachronistic way its women speak and dress, and after a government raid on a Texas ranch in 2008 in which just under five hundred children were removed from the compound after an anonymous accusation of child abuse, mourning mothers popped up on cable news, telling not just their individual stories, but the story of how their religion came to be. Stephen and I investigated deeper and found, in addition to the popular and fascinating “I escaped a cult”-style memoirs, a long tradition of diary-keeping among women living in polygamy, stretching all the way back to Emma Smith, the first wife of Joseph Smith, who would have been 28 when her husband began marrying other women in secret.
What emerged from months of research was a complicated tapestry of relationships about — but never focused on — women. The willpower of the patriarch permeates everything, despite the population demographics (polygamy, practically, requires that there be many more women than men). The women’s stories mirror the narrative of the American expansion westward and all of the political and emotional worries surrounding an adolescent nation.
The debates about polygamy stretch back to the origins of all three Abrahamic religions — Sarah allowed Abraham to take her servant, Hagar, as a sanctioned mistress (a wife, in the Islamic tradition). Arguments against gay marriage in modern America often use polygamy as an inevitable endpoint at the bottom of the slippery slope. All of these arguments are still playing out in the newspapers and on TV: who determines how a family is composed? Should individual states have different definitions of marriage? What is the role of the federal government in any of this?
Stephen constructed a story around a family of women, all in a complicated dance with a single man and with one another. Two of the women — Eliza and Ruth — are in crisis, and each tries to escape the situation in her own way. The other women establish emotional and practical coping strategies — brave and tragic and submissive and aggressive and subtle and pointed.
I wanted to give each woman her own musical world within a more homogenous choral texture; many times, the women sing in a traditional ensemble way, and other times, they repeat small fragments of text in their own time — little mantras to keep the household together. Almera, the true believer, sings in a radiant, descant-like way; Ruth, wracked with grief, sings in a kind of broken folksong, whereas Lucinda, a teenage girl, sings actual hymn tunes which transform into an adult severity at the end of Act II. The orchestra represents, at times, the wonderfully severe landscape in southern Utah — sharp cliffs, a pervasive red dust, and the night sky.
DARK SISTERS follows one woman’s dangerous attempt to escape her life as a member of the FLDS Church (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints), a sect that split from mainstream Mormonism in the early 20th Century largely because of the LDS Church’s renunciation of polygamy. The male founders of the Mormon faith (Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, chief among them) loom large in American history; Dark Sisters puts the women front and center.
The narrative draws inspiration from the flurry of media attention surrounding the two most infamous raids on FLDS compounds (the 1953 raid at Short Creek, AZ and the 2008 raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, TX) as well as the stories of the over 80 wives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Set against a red-earthed landscape filled with revelations, dark prophets and white temples stretching towards heaven, Dark Sisters charts one woman’s quest for self-discovery in a world where personal identity is forbidden.
Eliza: lyric (or spinto) soprano
Zina: lyric coloratura soprano
Almera: spinto (or dramatic) soprano
Presendia: dramatic mezzo-soprano
Ruth: contralto or dramatic mezzo soprano
Prophet/King: bass or bass-baritone
Lucinda: light lyric (or lyric coloratura) soprano
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