Dark Sisters: Musical Notes 150 150 Archway Publishers

Dark Sisters: Musical Notes

Tyrrell_Kinza WEB-loresDr. Kinza Tyrrell is VO’s Principal Répétiteur and Assistant Chorus Director, Head Coach of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program and guest faculty at the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Nuova, and the conductor for VO’s Dark Sisters.

Nico Muhly’s colourful imagination has created a diverse orchestral palette in Dark Sisters – a chamber opera with only thirteen players, but 25 instruments. By having each woodwind player play 2 different instruments and the percussionist 9, he creates the illusion that the orchestra is double its size.

The towering red rock cliffs that form the backdrop for Colorado City, Arizona were a huge inspiration for Muhly’s orchestral template, which he describes in the score as “site specific…jagged and arid at points”. He visited the area several times and decided to have music that represents the landscape recur as a motif throughout the opera because it was so overpoweringly present. The sound of shifting earth is created by an interesting percussion instrument called the Geophone, an open drum filled with lead pellets that are swirled, and the endlessly winking starry Arizona sky is beautifully depicted with the celeste, glockenspiel and harp through his use of random pointillism (separate, distinct notes, akin to the technique of using small dots of colour to create an image, developed by the painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac). Other strong influences were Aaron Copland’s Americana music with – Muhly admits – “some pioneer folk music floating around,” and minimalism (the obsessive repetitive music of the 1960s.) You can hear this in the jaunty and rhythmic television music during the Larry King scene in Act 2.

Dark Sisters is partitioned into two acts and 19 chapters. Although it is a modern work, it contains some traditional
operatic features: arias, recitative (words feel more recited than sung), duets, and choruses. Eliza, the fifth and rebellious wife, has two arias in which she expresses her discontent with the Mormon fundamentalist way of life. Ruth, the mentally unstable second wife, also has two arias in which she explains the reasons for her ongoing grief. There are two duet scenes, one with Zina and Presendia in which they reveal their mutual jealousy, and a second with Eliza and Almera, who are genuine friends. When
The Prophet (the women’s husband) is absent from the household, there are quite a number of ensembles in which the five sister wives sing simultaneously, but what they sing and how they sing is rather individual. Their varied texts, melodies, rhythms and staggered entrances expose their unique personalities and thought processes, creating a sort of musical collage. In other moments, especially when The Prophet is present, the women sing the same text and rhythm in a rehearsed, uniform, hymnlike style. It is often their mantra ‘Keep sweet’ that they endlessly repeat – a warning to each other to be extra obedient and to not act out.

The women are cleverly distinguished by different voice types. Zina, the perkiest and youngest, yet the mother wife (head of the female household and the Prophet’s favourite) is a coloratura soprano who sings the highest passages. On the other end of the spectrum, Ruth – a mezzo/contralto – is down in the depths with angular and disjointed music, reflecting her mental state. Lucinda (a lyric soprano and the only child we hear from in this opera) scolds her mother Eliza by singing to her in a patronizing 3/4 metered lullaby which Muhly borrows from an LDS hymn (“Kind Father, I thank thee, for two little hands”). The only male voice, one that portrays both The Prophet and Larry King, is a bass-baritone. As The Prophet, his music is accompanied by low and sustained trombone and horn notes, underlining his dissatisfaction, seriousness and authority as the leader of the household. In contrast, his Larry King music is in a recitative style that is quite inquisitive and upbeat.

Nico Muhly wrote this magical score with the idea that he’d leave room for the performers’ interpretations. For example, there is freedom in all the recitatives and in the many moments where the women chant under their breath ad libitum (“at one’s pleasure”). The orchestral players also have opportunities for self-expression. They are welcome to create ‘random swells’, ‘anxious gestures on random pitches’ and ‘free rhythm’ when marked. In all other measures, everyone on and under the stage must stick to the page and ‘Keep Sweet’.

Please enjoy!

Dark Sisters opens on November 26. Find out more here!

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Author: Vancouver Opera

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