The barely legal lives of women in polygamous marriages may seem like fertile ground for an opera. Dark Sisters, composed by Nico Muhly with a libretto by Stephen Karam, has many attractive moments in music and story, yet demonstrates the difficulties of drawing art from life.

Left to right:  Jennifer Zetlan, Margaret Lattimore, Caitlin Lynch, Jennifer Check, Eve Gigliotti © Richard Termine
Left to right: Jennifer Zetlan, Margaret Lattimore, Caitlin Lynch, Jennifer Check, Eve Gigliotti
© Richard Termine

At the start of the show we meet five sister wives who are part of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), somewhere in the American Southwest. Through stylized gesture and movement they mourn the loss of their children, who have been abducted by authorities in a raid. We hear the most from one wife, Eliza, who soliloquizes her misgivings about her powerless life, and her fears that her teenage daughter will suffer the same fate. In the second act, the women are interviewed on a television talk show, where Eliza and the mentally unstable Ruth suffer breakdowns. The children are returned, Ruth kills herself, and when Eliza arrives at the funeral in modern dress – indicating that she will leave the family – she is spurned by her daughter, who chooses to stay with the only home she’s known rather than venture out into the outside world with her mother.

Muhly’s music is attractive, especially to people who would otherwise avoid new music. His writing for voice shows a welcome understanding of vocal technique, and he sets the text in instinctive, meaningful ways. He never makes the chamber ensemble struggle to sound like a full orchestra, though this comes at the expense of a broader sonic sweep. The piece is well crafted, with scenes intuitively moving into each other, and none of the self-conscious moments that can happen with opera in English.

The most interesting passage came at the beginning, with a nearly a cappella five-voiced fugue for the mourning women. Eliza’s aria, sung under the stars, was a touching line of wide intervals over harp and glockenspiel, like a music box. Other than a few intimate moments that had a voice singing with one or two instruments, most of the accompaniment came from the strings, with winds employed for additional power, but rarely color. A wind machine made a couple of appearances, but so incongruously that it could have been mistaken for noise from a backstage set change. Pop-inspired techniques abounded (ostinato patterns, driving rhythms), and like a pop song, never pushed us out of our emotional comfort zone.

The weaknesses of the work lay mostly in the libretto. Karam must have done his homework, with wives exhorting each other to “keep sweet” during their troubles, and creepily praying for their husband to share their bed and “give me the gifts” tonight. But the characters are paper cut-outs that reveal less about actual human beings than an outsider’s dismay with FLDS life. Unlike villains in other operas, Father has no redeeming qualities. Standing at Ruth’s grave, he eulogizes that “her commitment to plural marriage was unwavering.” At his first entrance, more to the audience than to his wives, Father declares that “you must be willing to give up your own will and obey the priesthood.” It’s never clear what benefit the women perceive in their arrangement, when all they do is bicker and most express regret about their chosen lives. After an opera propelled by the women’s devotion to their children, it is not believable when Eliza gives up her daughter with a hug and a wince.

Design and direction were beautiful and well-chosen. The raked stage was covered with what looked like Utah’s red earth, and the ladies’ white night gowns – designed by Miranda Hoffman – were stained maroon from the knees down, as if the women were being sucked down by quicksand. Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer were responsible for the set as well as truly amazing video projections. The news interview scene featured close ups of each woman’s face on a screen, amplifying their emotion, and Ruth’s suicide was surrounded by projections of wind and rain that transported her to other worlds. This scene’s music was spooky and compelling but, as with much of the music, not especially memorable.

Dark Sisters illustrates how much goes into the commissioning of even a small-scale work. The production is a collaboration between Gotham Chamber Opera, Music Theatre Group, and Opera Company of Philadelphia, where it will reappear in June 2012 as part of the OPERA America conference.

Caitlyn Lynch was a clear-voiced Eliza, whose acting managed to make her story compelling. Margaret Lattimore sounded full and earthy as Presendia; Kevin Burdette was a believably menacing Father with a dark core to his sound.