On Sunday, February 12th, I went to Boston Conservatory's last performance of contemporary composer, Nico Muhly's, English-language opera, Dark Sisters. This production was part of Berklee's annual New Music Festival, which this year, presented Muhly's work exclusively.
Since I had yet to educate my ear on this man's oeuvre, I decided to show up honestly and completely unprepared: I hadn't listened to any recordings or read about the opera's context at all. And so I sat uncomfortably through the first act, front and center, as bass Simon Dyer successfully creeped me out playing "Father," the "prophet," who I gathered either was engaged in an incestuous relationship with many daughters, or who was some combination of misogynist and narcissist. During intermission I overheard people talking about this being based on a true story, and realized Dyer was indeed portraying a polygamous creep named Warren Jeffs, who was reputed to have had over 50 wives--many of them in their early teens or even younger.
As for the music, it had many clusters of instrumental appeal and absorption in an individualized idiom that could only have been created by a very savvy creator. And yet, sometimes Muhly's setting of the English language seemed monotone, leaving the singers with apparently little to work with in the way of expression. Nonetheless, there were harmonious ensemble pieces which seemed to appear suddenly out of much tonal monotony--pieces that reached out and embraced us in the soothing folds of beauty. The singers sang well and cast their dramatic presentation in a significant light.
I was impressed with the use of projections, lighting, and live video--which recreated a newsroom interview and even included "live" delay while the actors sang onstage and on camera simultaneously. If this is the direction opera is heading in, bring on the technology! After hearing Muhly's work, I'm interested in exploring his instrumental writing more: it seems to comprise the more idiosyncratic of this opera's texture and it is where the composer consistently excels at conveying a suspicious quirkiness.