Dark Sisters: Program Notes
Doug Tuck is VO’s Director of Marketing.
Welcome to the Canadian premiere of Dark Sisters, which has had only three other productions since its completion in 2011: at Gotham Chamber Opera, in New York; at Opera Philadelphia, in 2012; and at Pittsburgh Opera, in 2014.
Dark Sisters is set in the American southwest. Its story is inspired in part by two controversial government raids on fundamentalist Mormon communities, one in a place then known as Short Creek, on the border between Utah and Arizona, in 1953, and one in Texas, at Yearning for Zion Ranch, in 2008. In both cases, children were taken into protective custody and media coverage was intense, invasive, and sensational.
Despite its desert setting, the issues raised by Dark Sisters resonate deeply here in B.C. because of the long-standing and well-reported dispute between the B.C. and Canadian governments and Winston Blackmore, the leader of a breakaway fundamentalist Mormon community known as Bountiful, located near Creston. It has been reported that between 1975 and 2001, Blackmore married as many as 25 women. His trial, on charges of polygamy, has been given the go-ahead after decades of legal wrangling, culminating in the 2011 judgment of the Chief Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, who held that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which, among other things, protects the right to liberty and freedom of religion, did not overrule the Criminal Code.
Composer Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam are keenly interested in issues of individual liberty, religious freedom, and equality. This intersection of politics and art is clearly comfortable and fertile ground for Muhly, who believes that all operas are political. “I can’t think of one opera that isn’t political in some way,” he said to edgephiladelphia.com, in 2012, before the second production of Dark Sisters. “When you look at Rameau, Handel, Mozart, they were all looking at the world around them socially and politically. Così fan tutti is an incredibly political opera. Right now there is a flare up of interest about Mormonism, but the politics and discussions around it aren’t new.”
To create the opera, Muhly and Karam immersed themselves in the stories of polygamist communities. They researched the historical record of the two raids, read fi rst-person accounts of women who broke away from their polygamist families, and visited the red-earth countryside around Short Creek (now known as Colorado City, Arizona). They were interested in telling the story from the perspective of the “sister wives”, without judgment. Rather than making a statement about the rights or wrongs
of polygamy, they created a sensitive, detailed depiction of the lives of six polygamist women and let their voices sing individual truths. In the opera, fervent believer Almera sings, “I’m so blessed to be among God’s chosen ones, to know that in the next life we will be rewarded, celestial queens. Kingdoms all will be ours.” Her sister wife, Eliza, by contrast, struggles with her faith in God, whom she thinks might not be listening to her, with her fears for her young daughter, and with what she sees as oppressive patriarchy: “I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh…a man who thinks he knows my heart. No man knows my heart. No man knows my history.”
As with all compelling stories told through vivid and often sympathetic characters, these highly personal points of view paradoxically make the opera universally appealing. We identify with the women and with their circumstances and make an emotional connection. They sing our truths, or they contradict them, which gets our backs up and raises our consciousness. The music expresses our feelings. And the story connects to our lives. We find ourselves asking questions – sometimes political questions – about our society. Tomorrow we will read the news headlines with a new perspective. And we will affirm, or refine, or form, or perhaps even change our opinions, with invaluable insight, gained through art. This is true of all the operas we present,
to greater or lesser degrees, and it is certainly true of Dark Sisters.
Dark Sisters opens November 26. Find out more.
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Author: Vancouver Opera
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