Beautiful and Chilling “Dark Sisters” also Haunts
It is easy to love, to hear the music in the heart and soul that comes from loving another. Understanding that this sustaining love is a gift from God makes the music even more beautiful. And that is how the women feel in the opera “Dark Sisters” presented at Oklahoma City University in the Kirkpatrick Theatre. “Dark Sisters” is a modern opera premiering in 2011 and based on the events that took place in a cult that has been separated from the Church of Latter Day Saints for over a century. Initially, plural marriage was an important tenet in church doctrine, but in 1890 plural marriage was outlawed. Some faithful members, determined to retain the original beliefs established their own communities allowing plural marriage.
It may be that those truly committed to their beliefs found joy and salvation in these teachings, but the ideals have degenerated. “Dark Sisters” tells the story of one cult. The Prophet, head of the community and his family, has married five women of varying ages. He believes that women should ‘keep sweet’ and embrace his choices as their own from a very young age. Lucinda is his own daughter, a sheltered and naïve child of 15, and she is expected to marry within the sect to a man who is 58 years old. ‘Keeping sweet is a matter of life and death’ he says and should Lucinda’s mother discover his plans she may not keep so sweet. Alerted to potential child abuse, authorities have raided the compound and removed every child they found. All of the mothers stay, grieving for their children, but they ‘keep sweet’ in misguided loyalty.
Presenting this story as an opera is less of a challenge than one might think. The music is beautiful but somewhat atonal and a voice will rise in gorgeous lilt and then turn momentarily strident. Suddenly the powerful orchestra takes the discordance to heart and each instrument wails. Grief wafts over the audience as these beautiful women have become shells, wailing for their children and accepting their lot in life, until Lucinda’s mother, Eliza, begins to resist. Another sister-wife is Ruth who, in suffering, is no longer quite right. She shares a letter she found explaining the Prophets plan for Lucinda. Opera is the perfect vehicle for the story and the modern deviation from traditional melodic themes conveys the emotion and story disturbingly and perfectly.
The event has become newsworthy and the Prophet is forced to allow his wives to be interviewed by a reporter. They have been coached, but Ruth reveals her instability and Eliza reveals the truth. Eliza abandons the cult, joining the real world and leaving sisters to mourn her spiritual loss.
The music rises and falls and to that music the hearts and souls of the audience beat erratically. The music is by the talented and acclaimed composer, Nico Muhly, with the Libretto by Stephen Karam. The power of sound is almost overwhelming and the cast does justice to that sound. They cannot only sing, they can act! The conductor is Matthew Mailman and his talent is supreme. David Herendeen directs “Dark Sisters” with great sensitivity and skill. The two casts and the orchestra members are all students and students also create the set and costumes. Students destined for professional excellence.
While every cast member is brilliant, Alyssa Jackson as Eliza and Brennan Martinez as Ruth are indisputably excellent. The set is quite marvelous evoking a dark and murky beauty from the beginning. The costumes are sweet and appropriate overall old fashioned and matronly. In addition, one costume is an outstanding and intricate masterpiece Edith Head would be proud to claim. Another costume, intending to represent the outside world, is unfortunately uncomfortable looking, an unnecessary distraction.
Unfortunately the performance is for one weekend only, last weekend. One can contact the Oklahoma City University Department in the Wanda L Bass School of Music and David Herendeen, Artistic Director about the next Spotlight Production—“Juniper Tree” showing March 4. There is great talent all over the stage in the Kirkpatrick Auditorium and OKCU has long been noted for providing excellence in Opera, Dance, Theatre and Musical Theatre. The University box office number is 405-208-5227.