Dark Sisters explores polygamy through opera

Dark Sisters composer Nico Muhly found opera the perfect medium for exploring the multifaceted world of polygamy

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      It might seem strange to describe an opera about Mormon polygamy as feminist, especially as it’s a word that its composer, Nico Muhly, tends not to use. But Dark Sisters is not about the more easily sensationalized aspects of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), not about its child brides and harem-keeping elders and remote, fortresslike desert communities. And it’s certainly not a case of urban, opera-going sophisticates, such as Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam, mocking the rural faithful.

      “It was key for us to not feel like a bunch of New Yorkers making fun of people who look different and act different,” says the composer, in a telephone interview from his New York City studio. “It was really important to us to really get inside the story, rather than say ‘Oh, those wacky people!’ And I think that one of the things that let us do that was starting out by saying ‘Okay, a polygamous community is by necessity more women than men, right?’ And so once you know that, you begin to realize that it’s the women’s stories which are the most important ones, which is easy to forget.”

      Dark Sisters, which makes its Canadian debut in a Vancouver Opera production next week, opens in the aftermath of a U.S. government raid on the compound where its five female protagonists live. The children they’ve borne for their stern preacher husband—an obvious stand-in for FLDS patriarch Warren Jeffs—have been taken into custody, and the sister-wives are in mourning. But one has plans to escape.

      The plot, Muhly explains, was inspired by his lifelong interest in Mormon history—a Vermont native, he entered the world a few miles from the birthplace of the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith—but also by recent historical fact.

      “Maybe about seven years ago there was a big, sudden influx of these stories of women who had escaped from the various polygamous communities in southern Utah and in Arizona,” he says. “And there was a sense that this was a really interesting thing, because it existed at the intersection of a lot of things we’re obsessed with, as Americans and as people. It’s political, it’s sexual, and it has to do with the relationship the government has to the bedroom and to the family—what defines a family.”

      Moral ambiguities abound, some of which have gained currency after a Utah judge ordered that a nine-month-old girl be removed from the care of her lesbian foster parents. Progressives rallied to the couple’s cause—many of them the same people who applauded government intervention in the 2008 raid on an FLDS community that inspired Dark Sisters.

      Muhly cites a CNN broadcast in which Larry King interviewed FLDS women, as helping to clarify Dark Sisters’ plot and staging. “The women were sort of stage-managed, in colour-coordinated dresses and a V formation,” he says. “And one of them said, early on, ‘You’re speaking from a state where you allow men to marry other men, and they can have kids. How is that different from what we’re doing?’

      Nico Muhly

      “It’s a complicated argument,” he continues. “And it relates, I think, to the boundary of liberalism, on the other side of which exist things like whaling or female genital mutilation. You’ve got all these things that are just on that edge—things that you have to kind of contort yourself into a real position on.”

      In dealing with these issues Muhly has found himself walking a kind of moral tightrope. As a 21st-century human, he opposes forms of social control that oppress women, but as a gay man he resists the notion that government has the power to enforce limits on sexual expression.

      “You run up against a lot of walls of your own making when you start thinking about this,” he confesses. “That’s why I like opera. In music and theatre, you can simultaneously hold on to a couple of different viewpoints, which I think we tried to do in the opera pretty explicitly.”

      The artist’s role, he adds, is not to provide answers, but to ask questions—and to frame those questions so that the audience remains engaged enough to do its own thinking. “This is an opera that takes real events and stylizes them, but what I want to do is make sure that we’re telling a great story at all times,” he says. “It doesn’t want to feel like I’m making you think about the government in your bedroom all the time. You know what I mean? It’s about having those thoughts as a kind of counterpoint to the story that we’re telling.”

      Vancouver Opera presents Dark Sisters at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre from next Thursday (November 26) to December 12.