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Sopranos Yearning for Zion, in New York

As I watched Nico Muhly’s new opera Dark Sisters last weekend in New York, at the same time his Quiet Music for solo piano was being performed in Houston by Aperio’s Michael Zuraw. I would have loved to attend both performances. Muhly’s work figures prominently right now on my MP3 player, and it’s been a while since I’ve been so taken with the work of a young composer (he is 30-years-old).

Original artwork for Dark Sisters, dirt on canvas, by Noah Scalin

I first encountered Muhly’s work two years ago in Boston, at a performance of Stephen Petronio Company’s I Drink the Air Before Me. The score to this evening-length dance (the title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) was deeply original, but nonetheless unafraid of moving into good old-fashioned spectacle. With its fresh brass and maritime/electronic flavor, it sounded to my ears like the work of a man disinterested in pleasing his elders. It lacked an academic quality, as if Muhly wasn’t even worrying about trying to write “great” music. The score neither dominated nor subordinated itself to the dance. None of it was boring, and as a recording it holds up well on its own without the visual stimulation of the theatrical production. If you have a chance to see it staged, however, don’t miss it. It’s one of Petronio’s greatest choreographies.

Muhly has an unusual gift for harmonic rhythm, for lack of a better term. What seems to interest me most in his writing is the pace of harmonic change, when and how the chords move in relation to the overall length of the piece, the rate at which they sustain. Often, there is a thrilling bass line that seems to come more from rock traditions than from classical ones.

Muhly has written a great deal of chamber music, all of it quite intriguing, but the show-stopper is certainly his 2008 Mothertongue. It’s one of those pieces he’ll never live down (fans are doomed to keep asking, “Why can’t he write something like Mothertongue again?”). As sopranos chant the alphabet, the names of American states, addresses they once lived, mnemonics like “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,” underscored by electronics (Valgeir Sigurdsson on electric bass and programming, Ben Frost on bass programming) and a variety of acoustic instruments from harp to trombone, including a pristine celesta played by Muhly himself (along with his keyboards, percussion, and more programming), a certain euphoria builds and builds. Or maybe, hysteria. I cried at the first hearing. Sometimes when I’m listening to the piece, I think of Sally Field in Sybil, standing in a plaza fountain and muttering “The people! The people!” wildly to herself as her nice new boyfriend tries to handle the situation. The music and layering of soprano voices suggest multiple personality disorder, but a kind of ascension takes over by the end. Joanne Woodward doesn’t save the day.   

Dark Sisters, as staged by Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group (co-commissioned and co-produced by Gotham Chamber Opera, Music-Theatre Group, and Opera Company of Philadelphia) is certainly of interest back here in Texas, where the events portrayed in the opera first occurred. Mothers at the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado (towards the southwestern part ofTexas) ruminated as they do in Muhly’s first act when the state forcibly removed their 126 children. Any parent who watched the proceedings on television was moved. The parents petitioned the Third Court of Appeals in Austin. After a month of litigation, the parents and children returned to the ranch, and officials of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints agreed not to “sanction” underage marriage. Television media had a field day.

The first act of Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam’s opera is concerned with the moments following the removal of the children, a time of heightened emotions when the mothers are left to deal with each other and don’t have the practical pre-occupation of so many children. The ensemble writing for so many women’s voices skillfully conveys their rivalries, hopes, and shaky solidarity in the face of authority (both that of the state and their “Prophet,” given a strong performance by Kevin Burdette). The second act follows their media coverage, the suicide of one them (Ruth, sung brilliantly by Eve Gigliotti), and the loss of faith and departure of another (Eliza, possibly the “lead” character, portrayed and sung wonderfully by Caitlin Lynch).  As the program synopsis explains, at the conclusion of the opera, “Heartbroken, she walks away from the compound and into the unknown.” Now that’s what I call an operatic ending.

An obsession with a new composer involves expectations that can be, at the least, quite complicated. I had hoped that Dark Sisters would take me further into the euphoria that started with the sopranos of Mothertongue. But Muhly is more careful in this piece, as if he is determined not be be labeled as a sole provider of musical ecstasy. The libretto calls for a more solemn, through-composed style that vacillates on the edge of madness. By the conclusion, I realized his musical decisions had been exactly on the mark.

The production standards in New York were lavish, starting with the Noah Scalin’s artwork for the program cover and promotional posters. Look at it very carefully, it’s made from sprinkled dirt. At his own website he describes the drawing: “The woman is an amalgam of several images taken of the FLDS wives, with their unmistakable anachronistic hairdos, gazing back at the cameras that endlessly stalked them once they were away from their homes.” For more on Scalin, see http://blog.alrdesign.com/2011/08/dark-sisters-playing-in-dirt.html

There are certain precedents to what I see as a neo-symbolist opera. Muhly has written a piece worthy of one of the prize students of John Corigliano, whose Ghost of Versailles is without doubt one of the greatest operas of the late 20th century.  Even better, it doesn’t sound like a student work. I thought also that some of the writing for the female ensemble recalled the winding intricacies of Steve Reich’s Tehillim, while some of the rhythmic ideas paid a respectful nod to Adams’ Nixon in China. The magnificent staging directed by Rebecca Taichman (with set and video design by Leo Warner of 59 Productions, costumes by Miranda Hoffman, and lighting by Donald Holder) shows the influence of Robert Wilson (in particular, his Snow on the Mesa for Martha Graham Dance Company) and Meredith Monk (Magic Frequencies, A Science Fiction Chamber Opera). In the end, however, it is a singular effort for an audience that hasn’t quite figured out where opera is going in the early 21st century.  

I’m going along on Muhly’s journey, and can’t wait to see what he’s up to with Two Boys, which already premiered at English National Opera and will make its way to The Metropolitan Opera for the 2013-14 season. In the meantime, could we have a staging of Dark Sisters in Texas? This is a work that shouldn’t by any means fall out of the repertory.

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