Feb 17, 2017

'Dark' opera looks at polygamist sect

The actresses portraying sister-wives practice for the Oklahoma debut of "Dark Sisters." [Photo by Eriech Tapia, for The Oklahoman]
Eriech Tapia
The Oklahoman
February 16, 2017

The actresses portraying sister-wives practice for the Oklahoma debut of "Dark Sisters." [Photo by Eriech Tapia, for The Oklahoman]

Performers and stage crews are preparing for the Oklahoma debut of the opera "Dark Sisters" this weekend at Oklahoma City University, with the original conductor being on hand.

“The whole opera is about control and things being bigger; something is bigger than anybody else,” opera director David Herendeen said. The atonal opera is based off a raid on a polygamist sect at a Texas ranch in 2008, when authorities swept over 400 children into state custody, after a report of child abuse on the compound. “Despite that juicy topic of polygamy and underage marriage, it is really not about that,” Herendeen said. During the opera, scenes of struggles between the five sister-wives and prophet are shown and what Herendeen describes as a scripted interview with Larry King during a CNN interview. “It is based very closely on the interview, and if you watch the original interview, it is a little creepy,” said Austin Martin, who plays the role of Larry King. “As you watch the interview, you realize how fake they are in this; you can easily tell that they are being told what to say,” Martin said. The compound was a split from mainstream Mormonism, and Herendeen said the opera symbolically shows the struggle of the sister-wives. “Despite that really interesting and tabloidal context, the whole opera is about control,” Herendeen said. Being the youngest commissioned composer by the Metropolitan Opera, Nico Muhly collaborated on "Dark Sisters" with Tony Award-winning writer Stephen Karam. The opera has two acts with the first being 55 minutes followed by an intermission and free cookies on opening night. The second act is around 40 minutes. The performance will have a cast of 19 and a 19-member orchestra.

Learning opportunity

The original composer, Muhly, also will spend the week working with the cast and crew on the opera and allowing them to learn about his career. “We bring in composers, when we can, into our environment as a teaching moment for everybody,” Herendeen said. “On the other hand, I want to educate him about Oklahoma.” He will host a preshow talk at 7:15 p.m. Friday for guests, speaking on his career and any questions. “Hopefully, audiences will be excited about that, getting to at least see him or talk to him,” said Matthew Mailman, music director and first cousin to Muhly. Herendeen said having the family connection to Muhly was instrumental in bringing him to Oklahoma, which is a mission of the Oklahoma City University's opera and music theater company. “There is nothing more important as artist in our performances than connecting with the audiences,” Mailman said. “A lot of it you have to find clues in the music and this score is very hard musically,” Monica Thompson said. “It happens within a short period of time just in terms of where the story takes place.” Thompson plays Presendia, the first wife to the prophet, which she said requires her to be overly dramatic in her role, but still address a serious topic. “It is very hard music to learn, some of the hardest I have ever learned,” Thompson said. “It is one thing to practice it on your own and another thing to come to gather and hear everybody else's part.”


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