Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In The Big City: Dark Sisters, presented by the Pittsburgh Opera

Last night, I had the opportunity to see the Pittsburgh Opera's presentation of Nico Muhly's modern opera, Dark Sisters.  It has taken me several hours to try to process my feelings about it, and I am still not sure how well I am going to be able to convey them.

The opera is about a group of people who belong to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as FLDS.  The are a polygamous family; one husband, 5 wives, and countless children.  The opera opens with the group's ranch having been raided by government officials.  All the children have been removed, and we see each wife crying out for her children.  The husband, who serves as the prophet, tells the women he is leaving to ponder God's will, as the women are left behind to seek perfect obedience which will lead to perfect faith.

32 the prophet receives a revelation

One of the wives, Eliza, is beginning to doubt the validity of the group's beliefs; when she learns her teenage daughter has been promised to a middle aged man in marriage, she begins to think the prophet is a false prophet.  Most of the other wives are perfectly obedient and accepting of the religious dogma; only Ruth, who suffers from mental illness, does not follow blindly.  Eventually the husband returns home, as we see the wives deal with the jealousy of sharing the person they love the most, in the most intimate way possible.

The second act opens with the wives being interviewed for a national news show.  The women try to emphasize that they only care about the children, and that they are happy and free in their choices.  Suddenly Eliza reveals on national television that she was a child bride, and that she is not free.  As the show closes, we learn that Eliza has sought freedom by leaving the sect, while Ruth has also sought freedom, by committing suicide.

0369 Eliza says goodbye

This was an incredibly complex show; the music is complex, the moral themes at play are complex, and the emotions evoked are complex.  I was surprised, first off, to find frequent moments of levity and dark humor in the show.  I think they were perfectly timed, and absolutely necessary.  They helped counterbalance the starkness of the reality of subject matter.

In terms of the topics, as I already said, I am fascinated by the FLDS.  It saddens me to see the women enslaved by the bounds of their religion.  The increase in child brides is tantamount to human trafficking.  I feel for the women who have no choices.  But some women do feel they have a choice, and they are willingly choosing their faith.  This is where the matter becomes sticky for me.  At what point does this stop being a human rights issue, and start becoming an issue of religious freedom?  Are the two things mutually exclusive?  I was glad I went into this experience well read on the topic of the FLDS.  It made me appreciate the extreme attention to detail in the music and staging.  The show was on point with everything I have ever learned about the FLDS life.  And the constant muttering of "keep sweet", meaning to put on a happy face and be a perfect wife, was almost eerie.

Although not my first live opera, this was my first experience with a modern opera.  As a chamber opera, the experience was much more intimate.  It was in a smaller setting, and the minimalist set helped draw the audience into the characters and story.  The music was complex and rich, but what really made the show, for me, was the amount of feeling the performers portrayed from an acting standpoint.  I felt the anguish of these women.  The moment that struck me was when Eliza revealed her child bride status on television, and the wives began to insist she was lying.  Oh, the looks on their faces, it just made that moment so real, so frightening.

I highly recommend the show to anyone well versed in opera, or particularly interested in the topics of polygamy and the FLDS religion.  This was a much different experience than any other cultural event I have ever attended, and now, more than 12 hours later, I find myself feeling like the show makes the concepts of right and wrong much less clear cut.

0220 the sisters hold on to each other

I received tickets to this show compliments of the Pittsburgh Opera in exchange for my honest review.  All views presented here are 100% original and honest.  All pictures were provided by the Pittsburgh Opera and used with permission.

In addition, the Pittsburgh Opera provided me with tickets to give away to a reader.  Congratulations to Samantha Miller for winning those tickets.