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The Polygamy Opera Hits Vancouver

Love, death, betrayal and redemption are timeless narratives found in the opera, but the 21st century has opened up the scene to topics like Nixon, Steve Jobs—and even polygamy.
September 8, 2015, 3:00pm
A scene from the 2012 production of Dark Sisters. Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy Opera Philadelphia. 

Bringing the controversial subject of marriage with multiple wives to a refined art form is Dark Sisters, a contemporary opera now set to take the stage in Vancouver. Written by the young, New York-based composer Nico Muhly, the two-hour performance follows a woman belonging to a fundamentalist sect of The Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Discussing both polygamy and individuality in modern day America, Eliza attempts to leave her marriage to a "Prophet" and save her daughter from forced matrimony.

"The narrative draws inspiration from the flurry of media attention surrounding the two most infamous raids on FLDS compounds,” says James Wright, General Director of the Vancouver Opera. “As well as stories of the over 80 wives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young."

A scene from the 2012 production of Dark Sisters. Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy Opera Philadelphia.

While Mormonism stopped practicing polygamy over a century ago, breakaway denominations still maintain the tradition. In 1953 in Short Creek, Arizona, police infiltrated an isolated community of FLDS and served 122 indictments to 36 men and 86 women, simultaneously putting all children present into state custody. Issues of child abuse were the main instigator for action. A similar raid occurred in 2008 at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Both received extensive media coverage.

Depleting opera audiences have more and more contemporaries attempting to connect to new viewers by adapting already established stories or creating pieces out of historical events, like Nixon in China. “We feel it necessary to both preserve the art and engage a larger audience, one that is not schooled in ‘traditional opera,’” says Wright, in his 38th year working in the field. “One that seeks to connect art with political and social issues of the day, or one that requires an ‘event’ atmosphere and an ability to document.”

One scene from Dark Sisters depicts the television programme Live with Larry King. Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy Opera Philadelphia.

The opera company has touched on community-specific themes before, including a production about a Japanese internment camp on Canada’s West Coast during WWII. Although Wright doesn’t expect an outcry from the production of Dark Sisters, he thinks it will shed further light on the issue. After two successful US runs in 2011 and 2012, Dark Sisters inclusion in the Vancouver Opera’s 2015-2016 season is fitting, as four polygamists face criminal charges in British Columbia.

"The court may coincide with our production and we would like people to notice this,” Wright tells The Creators Project. “We will build a community engagement series around the Bountiful BC Community. Another way of reflecting ‘this place.’”

Some operas have drawn on social and political problems—“Mozart, DaPonte, and Verdi immediately come to mind,” Wright explains. Challenges today lie in appealing to a younger generation’s fleeting tastes, while maintaining the operatic tradition of emotionally enduring storytelling.

With a cast of regional singers, 10 performances of Dark Sisters are scheduled for November and December 2015. For more information click here.

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