Listen Up, Sister!


By Jocelyn Miller

On the small screen and on the campaign trail, Mormonism is undergoing an odd cultural renaissance. Now, it's on the stage in 'Dark Sisters,' a new opera by Nico Muhly.


Mormonism is on a hot streak:  It’s the subject of a blockbuster musical, presidential candidate debates, and the strange and puzzling ad campaigns that proselytize from the back of NYC taxis for "" (a visit to the site finds, sandwiched between stories about mormons “going green” and winning women’s surfing championships, questions like, “What is my purpose in this life?”). The same is true for Mormonism’s fundamental, polygamous sub-sects, with HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives pawing at the ratings like a sister wife in heat. A new chamber opera, Dark Sisters, the brainchild of composer Nico Muhly and playwright Stephen Karam (co-commissioned and co-produced by Gotham Chamber Opera, Music-Theatre Group, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia) is the latest to join the fray, opening last Wednesday and offering a dramatic treatment of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and their famously polygamous ways.

Dark Sisters’ plot focuses on the aftermath of a government raid on an FLDS community, based rather explicitly on the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, which involved the removal of over 400 children by child protective services, and resulted in a complex and nationally publicized custody battle-cum-civil rights dispute. In Dark Sisters, the raid is a catalyst for heroine Eliza’s descent into crisis, as she begins to question her faith and her identity as one of five sister wives, and to summon the strength to change her life, with sights set on reuniting with her daughter, Lucinda, who’s among the children removed by welfare agencies. 

Karam and Muhly sensitively make a point to examine the sister wives on both individual and collective levels. The result is an entirely soprano warp and weft whose musical fabric is not unlike the texture of the story’s physical landscape: for the most part constant and flat (and sometimes this stasis is not entirely engaging), but thrillingly punctuated by dramatic, extreme peaks and mesas, where individuals burst forth from musical and narrative assimilation to assert their presence and impressions. Muhly’s score uses Mormon hymns and pioneer folk songs as raw material to write music that feels elemental and expresses with woozy strings and twitchy, precise (well, almost—the orchestra could have been more nimble) counterpoints profound precariousness and pervasive emotional, spiritual, and physical tension.