The Composer

Nico Muhly (1981 -)

Nico Muhly is an American composer and sought-after collaborator whose influences range from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition. The recipient of commissions from The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Philadelphia Orchestra and others, he has written more than 80 works for the concert stage, including the operas Two Boys (2010), Dark Sisters (2011), and Marnie (2017), which premiered at the English National Opera and was staged by the Metropolitan Opera in the fall of 2018; the song cycles Sentences 2015), for countertenor Iestyn Davies, and Impossible Things (2009), for tenor Mark Padmore; a viola concerto for violist Nadia Sirota; the choral works My Days (2011) and Recordare, Domine (2013), written for the Hilliard Ensemble and the Tallis Scholars respectively and most recently Register (2018), a work for organ and orchestra written for James McVinnie and premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Muhly is a frequent collaborator with choreographer Benjamin Millepied and, as an arranger, has paired with Joanna Newsom and Antony and the Johnsons, among others. Planetarium, a large work co-written with Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner, was released on 4AD records. He has composed for stage and screen, with credits that include music for the 2013 Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie and scores for the films Kill Your Darlings; Me; the Academy Award-winning The Reader; and the BAFTA nominated BBC mini-series Howards End. Born in Vermont, Muhly studied composition with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at the Juilliard School before working as an editor and conductor for Philip Glass. He is part of the artist-run record label Bedroom Community, which released his first two albums, Speaks Volumes (2006) and Mothertongue (2008). He currently lives in New York City.

The Librettist

Stephen Karam (1980 -)

Stephen Karam is the Tony Award-winning author of The Humans, Sons of the Prophet and Speech & Debate. For his work he’s received two Drama Critics Circle Awards, an OBIE Award and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Stephen recently directed his first feature film, a rethought version of The Humans for A24 films, to be released in 2021. He wrote a film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull starring Annette Bening, which was released by Sony Picture Classics. His adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard premiered on Broadway as part of Roundabout’s 2016 season. Recent honors include the inaugural Horton Foote Playwriting Award, the inaugural Sam Norkin Drama Desk Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, a Lucille Lortel Award, Drama League Award, and Hull-Warriner Award.
Stephen teaches graduate playwriting at The New School. He is a graduate of Brown University and grew up in Scranton, PA.

A profile on Stephen can be found here:

The Opera

A chamber opera in two acts for 7 singers and 13 instrumentalists, running time of 90 minutes. The world premiere of Dark Sisters took place in 2011 as a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Gotham Chamber Opera.

The Story

DARK SISTERS follows one woman’s dangerous attempt to escape her life as a member of the FLDS Church (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints), a sect that split from mainstream Mormonism in the early 20th Century largely because of the LDS Church’s renunciation of polygamy. The male founders of the Mormon faith (Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, chief among them) loom large in American history; Dark Sisters puts the women front and center.

The narrative draws inspiration from the flurry of media attention surrounding the two most infamous raids on FLDS compounds (the 1953 raid at Short Creek, AZ and the 2008 raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, TX) as well as the stories of the over 80 wives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Set against a red-earthed landscape filled with revelations, dark prophets and white temples stretching towards heaven, Dark Sisters charts one woman’s quest for self-discovery in a world where personal identity is forbidden.

From the Nico Muhly website:

When Stephen Karam and I set out to write Dark Sisters, the FLDS (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) had been all over the news. The sect — which split from mainstream Mormonism in the early 1900’s — is very media savvy, despite the visibly anachronistic way its women speak and dress, and after a government raid on a Texas ranch in 2008 in which just under five hundred children were removed from the compound after an anonymous accusation of child abuse, mourning mothers popped up on cable news, telling not just their individual stories, but the story of how their religion came to be. Stephen and I investigated deeper and found, in addition to the popular and fascinating “I escaped a cult”-style memoirs, a long tradition of diary-keeping among women living in polygamy, stretching all the way back to Emma Smith, the first wife of Joseph Smith, who would have been 28 when her husband began marrying other women in secret.

What emerged from months of research was a complicated tapestry of relationships about — but never focused on — women. The willpower of the patriarch permeates everything, despite the population demographics (polygamy, practically, requires that there be many more women than men). The women’s stories mirror the narrative of the American expansion westward and all of the political and emotional worries surrounding an adolescent nation.

The debates about polygamy stretch back to the origins of all three Abrahamic religions — Sarah allowed Abraham to take her servant, Hagar, as a sanctioned mistress (a wife, in the Islamic tradition). Arguments against gay marriage in modern America often use polygamy as an inevitable endpoint at the bottom of the slippery slope. All of these arguments are still playing out in the newspapers and on TV: who determines how a family is composed? Should individual states have different definitions of marriage? What is the role of the federal government in any of this?

Stephen constructed a story around a family of women, all in a complicated dance with a single man and with one another. Two of the women — Eliza and Ruth — are in crisis, and each tries to escape the situation in her own way. The other women establish emotional and practical coping strategies — brave and tragic and submissive and aggressive and subtle and pointed.

I wanted to give each woman her own musical world within a more homogenous choral texture; many times, the women sing in a traditional ensemble way, and other times, they repeat small fragments of text in their own time — little mantras to keep the household together. Almera, the true believer, sings in a radiant, descant-like way; Ruth, wracked with grief, sings in a kind of broken folksong, whereas Lucinda, a teenage girl, sings actual hymn tunes which transform into an adult severity at the end of Act II. The orchestra represents, at times, the wonderfully severe landscape in southern Utah — sharp cliffs, a pervasive red dust, and the night sky.

From Artistic Director Christopher Mattaliano:

“My own – very personal and subjective – means of evaluating/considering a new opera is relatively simple: does the work continue to “speak” to me over the years? There have been many new American operas in recent decades – many with controversial subjects, current events, “real characters” in the news, etc – that may create a sensation initially, but then disappear. And then there are those that continue to move and excite us years after the initial buzz has died down. Some become part of the ongoing, regular repertory – Satyagraha (1979), Nixon in China (1987) and Dead Man Walking (2000) come to mind.

I saw the world premiere production of Dark Sisters in 2012. This one has stayed with me. Actually, it’s haunted me for the past 10 years. I think it’s one the best modern operas in the rep today – a powerful libretto with deeply expressive music.

Unlike contemporary composers who treat the voice as a member of the orchestra, Nico Muhly is a true “vocal” composer who understands the human voice. His background as a choral singer is deeply felt in the ensembles for the 6 women’s voices, which is some of the most beautiful vocal writing I’ve ever heard – not only in “modern” opera, but in all opera.

Muhly (b.1981) is a very prolific composer with a huge following on Spotify and works with both classical and pop musicians. In Dark Sisters, I hear the influence of such diverse composers as Aaron Copland (think the wide-open harmonies of Appalachian Spring), John Adams, Philip Glass, Benjamin Britten, and Olivier Messiaen (in particular, his From the Canyons to the Stars). There is a full-throated lyricism to the music of Dark Sisters that is communicative, immediate, and bracing.

In what could be a simplistic story with a pat moral, the libretto instead strikes a balance in showing different points of view – each with its own sense of inner conviction – and does not provide an easy conclusion.

This is a rich, moving work. I believe it’s here to stay.”

From conductor Deana Tham:

“Nico Muhly’s opera, Dark Sisters, was written in fascination about the 2008 raid of the Texas ranch on a sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I’m particularly excited to present this work.

There is no doubt an almost universal fascination with these fringes of culture or religion. Presenting these curiosities in an artistic frame allows us to explore the depths of our own humanity — traits that we all possess but do not often face, little bits of darkness or perhaps the extremes of light that we did not know we have our have chosen to ignore. What are we really capable of? How deeply can we really feel? These peripheries of our existence as a species bring to the surface that within us which we have not excavated.

Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam face these questions head on, exploring the relationships that the women in this polygamous story develop between each other, the facets of us that emerge when faced with psychological survival, and the way the patriarchy permeates all of these outcomes. All the while, they mirror the experiences of this microcosm with the political and emotional woes of American westward expansion in a country that is swimming through its adolescence. There are no doubt themes that still ring true in this decade.

Nico Muhly’s musical language so expertly pits expansiveness against passionately personal voices. When listening to his work, one never loses a sense of setting against which his characters play and relate. Bringing the complexity of this musical language to light has been particularly exciting for me, as I find much of the joy and meaning in music is the ability to bring into harmony conflicting voices, colors, and even senses of the passing of time. Muhly brings each woman’s personal story, coping mechanisms, survival techniques, and personalities into specific light, while never losing sight of how all these traits work together to build a full scope of humanity in this little society in which the opera is set. And this is all painted against the vastness of the red Utah landscape bringing the weight of the geologic expanse of time as we explore this tiny microcosm of our experience.

Working on this production has been a catharsis for me. To explore a work where these women are finding or losing themselves in a world that is not theirs — I think many of us, no matter our upbringing or belonging can relate as the world rapidly continues to change. It is a true honor and challenge to work on a piece that so adeptly brings emotionality to the complexity of modern existence.”

From stage director Kristine McIntyre:

“Dark Sisters is a story of resilience, survival, and ultimately of hope, seen through the eyes of one extraordinary woman. It is still unusual in opera to center women’s voices and women’s stories, and yet this is exactly what composer Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam have done. The storytelling unfolds not from the perspective of the Prophet, the leader of the FLDS, but instead from that of the wives – sisters and mothers who share a household and a life within the confines of a polygamist, patriarchal cult.

Muhly’s score is the embodiment of one among many, with beautiful choral moments that lets us hear these women united in grief, in longing, in desire. But it also allows Eliza to emerge as a singular voice, one who is no longer content to simply be one of many. She increasingly questions what she has been taught and learns, both musically and dramatically, to see herself as a unique individual, worthy of her own destiny. The opera is not hers alone. Each of the wives has their own story to tell, and the piece asks fascinating and important questions about the nature of freedom, and the individual, and the responsibilities we bear to one another.

And yet it is so fitting that this opera is conceived as one young woman’s journey, because it is largely women who brought down FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, through their brave testimony and willingness to speak out against injustice and abuse. These women continue to support others who have left and the sisters and children they left behind. They bear powerful witness to women’s resilience against evil and to the strength and beauty of the human spirit. I am proud to be part of telling their stories.”

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