Thursday, December 10, 2015 marked the penultimate performance of Nico Muhly‘s Dark Sisters for Vancouver Opera’s 2015-2016 season. Originally co-commissioned and premiered by New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera in 2011, Dark Sisters is the story of five women– Eliza, Zina, Presendia, Almera, and Ruth– living in a polygamous compound with their husband, a self-proclaimed Prophet of God. The opera, set against the desert landscape of the American Southwest, takes place after the children were taken away by state officials in a raid on the suspicion of child abuse.
Although Dark Sisters was written several years ago, its subject matter remains controversial and highly relevant, most recently popularized through the Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Nico Muhly, however, takes a more empathetic approach by portraying these women as human beings rather than caricatures. Dark Sisters deals with their personal tales of faith and inner turmoil, offering insight into how each sister wife copes with her existence now that their lives have been shaken to the core. Their emotions revealed over time were ultimately what drove the opera onward; on several occasions this lack of action made the two-hour production feel sluggish, but the intense focus and fluidity of Muhly’s music justified the slow pacing. This was further aided by clever off-stage direction as the singers began the opera from among the aisles, facing the audience and singing in staggered chorus with pleas for their missing children. The women turned to the stage only as their husband started to call upon them, and with that simple shift, the audience suddenly found themselves sharing the perspective of the sister wives, looking towards the Prophet at a distance and with an odd kind of reverence. The effect was haunting, made even more so by the experience of hearing the women’s voices and seeing their expressions up close.
On its own, Dark Sisters‘ score was a fine balancing act between uncertainty and control, combining restraint with instances of anxiety, defiance, and wonder. These moments were most often associated with Eliza, the opera’s protagonist (played by Melanie Krueger), whose impulse to leave the compound was evident from the very beginning. One of her earlier arias was situated upon a cliff as she looked to the sky and questioned God’s intentions. Here, the music reflected Eliza’s inquisitive mood, twinkling with the sounds of harp and chimes as if the stars were trying to respond to her somehow, yet in other moments the music was notably absent, as if to echo the absolute silence of God. Though Eliza served as Dark Sisters’ lead and heroic figure, Ruth (played by Megan Latham) was by far the most compelling character on stage. She was given space to express humour, confusion, sadness, hope, and helplessness in her own quiet way which felt genuine compared to Eliza’s singular mindset. Perhaps Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam secretly favoured Ruth over the others because the music they wrote for her also proved to be their strongest work throughout.
While Dark Sisters did not provide many surprises, it did manage to unsettle the audience with gestures like Ruth’s dramatic exit followed by the Mormon hymn “Love at Home” near the finale. The song, given its wholesome, all-American style, was disturbing in that the audience knew this was not an indication of “happily ever after;” if anything, it indicated the exact opposite. Bold musical choices like this are what make Nico Muhly’s work compelling, and Vancouver Opera certainly matched this boldness by bringing Dark Sisters to Canada for the first time. The production as a whole– cast, orchestra, and crew altogether– navigated the opera’s intricacies with great deft, providing a strong case for more contemporary operas to come in Vancouver.