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Feminism confronts faith in ‘Dark Sisters’ 

OrpheusPDX’s production of American composer Nico Muhly’s contemporary chamber opera explores women’s complicated relationship with their religion — and each other.

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L-R: Lindsay Ohse (Eliza); Sarah Beaty (Presendia); Nathan Stark (Prophet), Vanessa Isiguen (Almera); Emily Way (Zina), Hannah Penn (Ruth) in OrpheusPDX’s ‘Dark Sisters.’ Photo: Owen Carey / courtesy of OrpheusPDX.

Five women in nightgowns stand on the red sands of the desert, calling out to their children, who have been taken from them by the government. That’s the evocative opening of Nico Muhly’s haunting 2011 chamber opera, Dark Sisters, presented this week by the innovative Portland summer opera company OrpheusPDX.

The mothers’ pain echoes throughout the opera in both music and words. As the story unfolds, however, the women’s laments give way to a more complicated story about sexism, media exploitation, patriarchy, religious extremism, and one woman’s emotional quest to escape her repressive conditions.

Escape from Polygamy 

The story is based on actual events: the 2008 police raid of a Texas ranch, where the patriarch of a breakaway Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) had taken his 26 wives and their children. The sect had split from the mainstream Mormon church after it renounced polygamy in the early 20th century. When authorities realized the leader had forced the women into youthful marriage, they worried about the fate of the nearly 500 (!) children there. 

An earlier 1953 raid on another compound in Arizona, plus diaries of dozens of Mormon women who’d escaped similar situations, provided additional inspiration for librettist Stephen Karam, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Humans (which played at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theater a few years back) and other plays.

“I’ve been obsessed with this sect,” Muhly said in an interview when the opera premiered. “It’s American and crazy. It runs parallel to the Lewis and Clark story and is more complicated with theology and personalities.”

The first act shows several “sister-wives” through the lens of the protagonist, Eliza, whose own story is based on the memoir of a woman who ran away from the compound after her cult leader husband, called The Prophet here, announced he’d be marrying their 15-year-old daughter to a 60-year-old man.

“She’s a wonderful central character,” says OrpheusPDX founder and Artistic Director Christopher Mattaliano, who chose Muhly’s opera. “We follow her journey and what she’s led to believe. She decides very bravely to leave, not having any idea what’s out there.”

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 Lindsay Ohse as Eliza in OrpheusPDX’s ‘Dark Sisters.’ Photo: Owen Carey / courtesy of OrpheusPDX.

Act 2 is based on an actual broadcast featuring famed TV journalist Larry King interviewing the women after the raid, which moves the spotlight from the religion’s repression to the media (and “reality” TV) response. The women, naturally, want their children back, and use the interview to make their case.

Yet while these larger, perennial issues of religious freedom, female repression, and media exploitation form the backdrop, the opera’s action focuses more on the details of the women’s lives and especially Eliza’s conflicts and character arc. Both factors — personal and political, specific and general — contribute to the opera’s continuing relevance.

Muhly and Karam strove to avoid stereotyping and condescension. “One thing I didn’t want to do from day one,” Muhly said, is “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.”

Christopher Mattaliano.
OrpheusPDX Founder/General and Artistic Director Christopher Mattaliano.

Mattaliano says they succeeded. The 2012 New York world premiere “made a huge impression on me,” he told ArtsWatch. “It’s a strong, heartfelt story, with extremely communicative music that is very accessible, beautiful and tells a touching story about this woman’s journey. It’s a very haunting piece.”

And a durable one. “My yardstick for modern opera is, does it stay with me?” Mattaliano explains. “Does it still speak to an audience five or 10 years later? We get seduced by sensational headline topics, and those operas get a lot of buzz, but a lot of them don’t have staying power. I saw two other productions of it, and I think this one is here to stay. The music lingers with you.”

Sprawling Spaces, Intimate Exchanges

That music sprang from one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation. Not yet 30 when he wrote it, Nico Muhly had already drawn praise for his consonant, minimalist-influenced chamber music. But his compositions for voices were even more richly compelling. Muhly grew up in Vermont singing in choirs, and still counts Anglican church music and other ancient and modern choral styles among his strongest influences. He shares that affection with another composer who wrote some pretty powerful operas, Benjamin Britten, whose fans might especially appreciate Muhly’s music.

“He’s a composer who understands how to write for singers,” Mattaliano says. “A lot of contemporary opera composers treat the voice like a member of the orchestra. But his background as a choral singer [produces] beautiful writing for the human voice,” which carries over into Muhly’s operatic works.

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He also works best in intimate settings. Like other composers such as Schubert, Mattaliano says, “he’s much of a miniaturist in his aesthetics. His genius is most effective at smaller scales,” rather than the expansive Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera productions of his grand operas. “They lose their character when they try to blow things up.” 

Which makes Muhly’s chamber-sized setting (13 instruments, seven singers, around 90 minutes) ideal for OrpheusPDX, which Mattaliano created precisely to showcase the vast number of audience-friendly, intimate scale operas that just don’t work in America’s typically cavernous operatic venues. Last year’s artistically successful inaugural season at Portland State University’s acoustically refined, relatively intimate, 475-seat Lincoln Performance Hall validated that vision in spades.  

‘Dark Sisters’ composer Nico Muhly. Photo: Heidi Solander

Muhly used a variety of American-inspired musical approaches to tell this American story. “Parts of it sound like Copland’s wide-open harmonies of Appalachian Spring,” including the opening evocation of Utah deserts. Mattaliano also discerns traces of America’s pre-eminent living opera composer, John Adams, and Muhly’s mentor Philip Glass. “I definitely hear the influence of that deep British choral tradition, Britten and Vaughan Williams,” Mattaliano says, as well as Olivier Messiaen’s harmonies.

In a blog post, Muhly himself cites such influences as well as Meredith Monk, Giacinto Scelsi, even American minimalist Steve Reich. “The orchestra represents, at times, the wonderfully severe landscape in southern Utah — sharp cliffs, a pervasive red dust, and the night sky,” he wrote.

That desert imagery also permeates this production’s stage design, by the great Portland theater designer Megan Wilkerson. Projected images of Mormon church prophets and other photos, including the cult’s Texas compound, impart a documentary feel. The TV interview scene features a pair of live cameramen on stage filming the singers, with the images projected onto an enormous screen. 

A pair of one-time Portland Opera resident artists, and audience favorites, Lindsay Ohse as Eliza, and Hannah Penn, star in the two leading female roles, with Nathan Stark dual cast as the Prophet and the TV interviewer. Other roles feature the rising young guest artists OrpheusPDX brings to town each summer, and is part of the company’s innovative Pathways Project development program for emerging opera artists. Appropriately for a stage and story commanded by women’s stories, the production is directed by Kristine McIntyre and the ensemble conducted by Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham.

Dark Sisters closes OrpheusPDX’s second season, and Mattaliano plans to continue the annual pairing of classic bel canto (this year, Mozart’s The Royal Shepherd) and contemporary chamber operas. It’s a winning formula that complements Portland Opera’s larger-scale offerings and offers similar professional quality. Though its short, nontraditional summer season makes OrpheusPDX somewhat of a hidden gem at this early stage, it’s already a vital and essential component of Oregon’s music culture. 

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OrpheusPDX’s ‘Dark Sisters’ runs Thursday and Sunday, August 24 & 27, at Portland’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Tickets (with special $15 student pricing available) and info at www.orpheuspdx.org.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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