PCS Clyde’s

Real life on the fringes: OrpheusPDX’s ‘Dark Sisters’

Local production of Nico Muhly’s opera brings complex emotions and conflicting points of view to Lincoln Hall.

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L to R: Sara Beaty, Emily Evelyn Way, Madeline Ross, Hannah Penn, Vanessa Isiguen, and Lindsay Ohse in OrpheusPDX's production of Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters." Photo by Owen Carey.
L to R: Sarah Beaty, Emily Evelyn Way, Madeline Ross, Hannah Penn, Vanessa Isiguen, and Lindsay Ohse in OrpheusPDX’s production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters.” Photo by Owen Carey.

The title alone, Dark Sisters, is enough to clue us in that the 90-minute chamber opera will touch on chilling moments, secrets, conspiracies, coverups, lies, sexual abuse, uncertainty. And mystery.

These ideas and textures surface in a disturbing and beautifully anguished way in the opera about six women confined to a Texas “ranch” and controlled by one man in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) Church.

OrpheusPDX, Christopher Mattaliano’s new opera company in its second summer season, staged Dark Sisters Aug. 24, the show I saw, and Aug. 26 at the acoustically resonant 475-seat Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. The company performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s little-known 1775 The Royal Shepherd (see my review) in early August – its toast to bel canto opera. OrpheusPDX’s formula is to produce one oldie-goldie chamber piece and one contemporary opera each summer, all designed with artistic intimacy in mind. So far, the format has been highly successful. I’ve seen all four operas produced to date, and praised them all, and I’m not the only critic who has had good things to say.

But back to Dark SIsters, the most stunning and provocative of the four operas performed so far, one that Mattaliano said has haunted and intrigued him for years since he saw the 2012 premiere. The story, directed spellbindingly by Kristine McIntyre and sung in English, focuses on the women who were part of the polygamy-practicing FLDS sect that split  from mainstream Mormons in the early 20th century. The women wear pastel prairie dresses (captured by costume designer Lucy Wells, who did an equally good job with the prophet’s oddball old-fashioned long johns). The five women’s “big” hair” is worn up (kudos to Sara Beuker’s styling) while their doubts are kept down, as they navigate an isolated world. That environment is expressed to some extent by the “video” and photo backdrop scenery of bare desert land and rocks conceived by veteran set designer Megan Wilkerson and by the minimalist music conducted confidently by Deanna Tham, an assistant Oregon Symphony conductor trying her deft hand and ear at opera.

The 2012 opera by brilliant 42-year-old American composer Nico Muhly with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize nominee Stephen Karam, explores this claustrophobic world and the women’s voices in the wilderness. The piece begins with the aftermath of the real-life 2008 raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado,Texas, in which about 500 children are taken by the authorities after an anonymous call to police about sexual abuse. 

The women, all with distinct voices – Muhly is a choral writer and singer – are mourning the loss of their children, singing their many names in a particularly distraught and tender way.

L to R: Lindsay Ohse, Sarah Beaty, Nathan Stark, Vanessa Isiguen, Emily Evelyn Way, Hannah Penn in OrpheusPDX's production of Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters." Photo by Owen Carey.
L to R: Lindsay Ohse, Sarah Beaty, Nathan Stark, Vanessa Isiguen, Emily Evelyn Way, Hannah Penn in OrpheusPDX’s production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters.” Photo by Owen Carey.

Of course, there is a man (perfectly portrayed by divinely cast baritone Nathan Stark), known as the prophet, “father,” the king who married and “owns” the women and chooses whom he will sleep with each night, each woman tense and worried that she won’t be the chosen one. He also picks which older man is worthy of marrying an unmarried coming-of-age girl – in this case, Lucinda (tiny powerful soprano Madeline Ross) – who is 15 and the daughter of Eliza (star soprano Lindsay Ohse, whom Portlanders might  know from her previous roles with Portland Opera). Eliza is beginning to question the community and its rules. She embodies growing confidence, stubbornness, regality and vulnerability, and shapes each of those emotions into her delivery. When she questions her daughter’s marriage to a man four decades older than Lucinda, she knows that younger men are few and far between. To practice polygamy, there must be more women than men, so many young men are kicked out of the sect. They’re called the “Lost Boys,” another part of the modern-day tragedy that doesn’t get much attention in this opera.

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In one way, the story revolves around Eliza and Lucinda, who both have expressive soprano voices, but in another way, the opera is a choral ensemble piece, and we distinctively hear each of the women’s voices, mantras, and explanations of coping and rationalizing. Almira (soprano Vanessa Isiguen) tells herself to “keep sweet,” stay pure, go along. Lucinda, who sings in an angelic hymn-like manner, grows from little girl to decisive young woman, and in the end, submits to the marriage with the 56-year-old man she and her mother previously had vehemently objected to. “She’s just a girl,” Eliza laments. But Lucinda asserts herself and rejects her mother’s decision to leave, and instead, stays behind at the ranch and in the sect.

L to R; Lindsay Ohse, Nathan Stark, Madeline Ross, Emily Evelyn Way, Sarah Beaty, and Vanessa Isiguen in OrpheusPDX's production of Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters." Photo by Owen Carey.
L to R; Lindsay Ohse, Nathan Stark, Madeline Ross, Emily Evelyn Way, Sarah Beaty, and Vanessa Isiguen in OrpheusPDX’s production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters.” Photo by Owen Carey.

Eliza voices her fears over her daughter’s impending marriage, but she equally objects to the one-man-show rule that dominates the compound: “No man knows my heart, no man knows my history.” She realizes that she, too, was “only a girl” when she was forced to marry the prophet. “Sometimes I can’t breathe. This house!” she sings in a bitter contemplative moment. Yet Almira responds that she wants Eliza “by her side in heaven,” and for that to happen, Eliza must obey. “We will be rewarded for our patience,” Almera reminds Eliza.

It’s astounding to believe this happened only 15 years ago, and that the women ended up on the Larry King Live show after the raid (no sign of the prophet on the TV show). Guess who played Larry King? Nathan Stark, showing his versatility and superb comic acting abilities, jutting out his jaw and fooling with his glasses, rolling up his sleeves, pulling at his red suspenders, twisting his mouth, asking potentially revealing questions that the women refuse to answer or avoid by repeating chorus-like: “We are thinking of the children.” Stark mostly talks, rather than sings as King, and the clever scenery reflects a TV studio with cameramen and projections of King and the women. At one point King refers to the ranch as “a compound,” which the women angrily object to (“It is our home!”) – except Eliza, who in the end leaves the sect.

Lindsay Ohse in OrpheusPDX's production of Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters." Photo by Owen Carey.
Lindsay Ohse in OrpheusPDX’s production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters.” Photo by Owen Carey.

Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn, a favorite in Mattaliano’ operas, plays Ruth, a slightly older woman than the others, ready to be “put out to pasture,” as her sisters suggest. She sings and acts with a touch of insanity, a secret in her past, in what Muhly called “a broken folk song.” In the end she climbs up a rock, alone in her loneliness, and jumps to her death.

Muhly and Karam researched other FLDS raids and diaries of Mormon women so there was a broader radius to the opera than this one situation. The scenery and wide-open background photo scenes of the Southwest, and the British-tinged American music with shades of the work of Muhly’s mentor Philip Glass – not to ignore Aaron Copland’s influence  – made us open our eyes to more than the women’s shockingly newsworthy 2010 story. The set and production contained flashbacks and portraits of the patriarchy-dominated Mormon history in the Southwest, making Dark Sisters a rich, many-layered piece, not just a good story.

As a non-Mormon woman experiencing this opera, I wanted those Mormon women to take control of their destiny, to walk away like Eliza did. But they didn’t. Conflicting points of view make the opera a challenge to absorb and accept, which is what good art can prompt us to do. Thanks to OrpheusPDX for bringing us such searing and real reflections of 21st-century life, though the opera did portray real life on the fringes. If any company can persuade reluctant opera goers to engage with this artform, it’s this one.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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