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A Provocative Preview: Gotham Chamber Opera and Composer Nico Muhly Present Dark Sisters

An October 13 performance at the New York City venue Le Poisson Rouge, entitled  “Gotham Chamber Opera and Nico Muhly Conspire,”  often felt like an insurrection of sorts—if not against institutional opera per se—against an attitude of sterile gentility and divisive pretention.  One part eclectic recital, one part season preview, Gotham Chamber Opera presented an intimate set of disparate songs and provocative performances, all while promoting the upcoming world premiere of Nico Muhly’s second opera Dark Sisters (November 9 through 19, at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater), which focuses on sister wives in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and one wife’s attempt to escape the polygamist Southwestern sect.

Image culled from Dark Sisters' Vimeo page.


The story itself is subversive, but not without precedent.  Dark Sisters seems poised to continue in the tradition of great American operas Susannah by Carlisle Floyd and The Crucible by Robert Ward, both of which engage the issue of the country’s complicated religious history with poignancy and aplomb.  Musically, Muhly’s Dark Sisters excerpts reveal sensitivity to the story’s characters and an understanding of opera’s innate vocal architecture.

The composer’s accompaniment at the piano was sparse and ethereal, giving the voices ample sonic space to execute substantive melodies filled with suppressed desires and loaded gravitas—Muhly possesses  an emphatic and idiosyncratic flair for spinto phrasing.   Amidst harmonic flourishes and obscured rhythms, his penchant for wrenching melodies emerged in full force, characteristically reinforced by the performance of his Honest Music, performed by the composer and violinist Yuki Lee Numata.  In the vocal and instrumental works alike, suddenly careening melodies imbued the music with a kind of visceral, grounded sensationalism.

As a preface to the Dark Sisters aria “Look What I Did,” which Muhly described as his attempt at opera’s “slowest mad scene,” the composer deconstructed the phenomenon of the mad scene in opera, likening it to MTV’s reality show series Jersey Shore: “Italian women with too much drama, freaking out.”  Such a comparison may come across as sacrilege to the traditional opera-going crowd, but then again, that constituency didn’t seem to be the intended audience for the evening.

Earlier on in the proceedings, stage director R.B. Schlather had turned the iconic “Barcarolle” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann into a provocative lesbian rendezvous, complete with a culminating kiss.  The audience erupted with generous cheers, suggesting that the opportunity to see Opera take off the white gloves for a bit was a welcome and refreshing one. Additional selections ranged from Händel’s supremely recognizable “Where E’er You Walk” (Semele) to the decidedly more obscure pair of Sibelius songs (“Flickan kom ifrån sin älskings möte” and “Norden”).

Other highlights included Philip Glass’s haunting “Evening Song” (from Satyagraha), performed with conviction by soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, and tenor Michele Angelini’s agile and exuberant interpretation of “Di che sei l’arbitra” from Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, a one-act opera the composer wrote as a teenager.  This season, Gotham Chamber Opera will present Muhly’s Dark Sisters alongside a revival of the Mozart work to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opera’s U.S. premiere and Gotham Chamber Opera’s first production in 2001.

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