Nico Muhly's 'Dark Sisters'

11.10.2011

By Michael Martin

In the young composer's wild world, opera's a drug and Whitney’s still the ultimate diva.

Photography by Alexander Wagner

Nico Muhly talks implausibly fast, spitting out fully formed discourse on identity politics quicker than a championship rap battler drops couplets. This is the function of a prodigious mind and a tight schedule. The 29-year-old classical composer — who has collaborated with Björk, Philip Glass, and Grizzly Bear — also wrote the soundtrack for Stephen Daldry's Oscar-nominated film The Reader. He's now working on a cello concerto, another film score, and two operas (one chamber, one grand, if you're counting). The first opera, Dark Sisters, which opens in New York City this November, is the story of a polygamist Mormon sect and a woman who tries to escape from it.

"This is going to sound flip," says Muhly, "but I was thinking about the great chamber operas, and how usually they're about one man and a bunch of women. I thought, Okay, what makes sense with one man and a bunch of women? Oh, right — a polygamist family!"

As his inspiration suggests, Muhly is a post-everything modernist with a wicked streak. Still, opera isn't the most typical pursuit for a young musician. "I've always been a huge fan of opera," he says. "It's a kind of magical form. You have all this stuff happening simultaneously. It's not just music and dance, or music and film, which are great combinations. With opera, it can be six or seven things all rotating around the same story. You end up with a much more concentrated emotional palette — everything just feels much more heightened and hallucinogenically wonderful."

His other opera, Two Boys, was recently performed in London with an 80-person cast and will open at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013. It’s the tale of two gay teenagers and the policewoman who investigates the murder of one of them. Although opera has historically spoken to gay men, Muhly's unsure if he has a gay sensibility. He's not even sure what that means. "I think being born in 1981 is a complicated time to be born," says Muhly, who was raised in Vermont (near the birthplace of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, he notes) and Providence, R.I., the son of a painter and a filmmaker. "Mainly, I grew up in a generation where you were made aware of AIDS at a young age, but I also grew up in an incredibly homonormative family. My mother, for instance, is an artist, and some of her best friends were gay. So I grew up with it as part of the fabric of how adults behaved."

Further proof of his age lies in Muhly’s references: he draws as much from pop as from the classical canon. "I'm listening to a lot of '90s R&B slow jams for this cello concert I'm writing," he says. "There's a lot of D'Angelo on my playlist at the present time. I'm trying to figure out how something like Whitney Houston's 'Heartbreak Hotel' works. It's just fabulous. It feels like a slow jam, but there’s also a lot of activity: a slow footprint but a fast emotional language. In opera it's what we call a 'mad scene,' where you end up getting crazy."

So what's his guiltiest pleasure? "I don’t have any guilt about anything really," he says quickly, then reconsiders. "Probably the Indigo Girls. I'm just about to turn 30, so it reminds me of some embarrassing road trip in 1995: 'You remember that time? We stopped at that diner!' "

Dark Sisters premieres November 9 at New York City's Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

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