Interview: Opera Fayetteville’s Founders On Producing Nico Muhly’s ‘Dark Sisters’ in Northwest Arkansas

By Freddy Dominguez

Opera Fayetteville is a small opera company with a big mission. Situated in a college town with a crackling cultural scene, the company brings cutting-edge operatic programming to an opera-starved corner of Northwest Arkansas.

For Tamara Ryan, Boston-based soprano and Opera Fayetteville founder, bringing opera to her hometown is a labor of love and a source satisfaction.

Creating An Opera Company in Arkansas

When OperaWire recently spoke to her, Ryan’s eyes brimmed with excitement recalling the fruition of a crazy idea. Nearly a decade ago, she had fallen in love with Mark Adamo’s opera “Little Women” and dreamed about putting it on herself.

A friend told her she should and Ryan decided she would. She reached out to friends and performers who, to her surprise, went all in.

It was a learning process, but she spoke with wonder of “the degree to which everyone came together in this completely grassroots, insane experience. It was so startling and it was amazing to me how much when you put something in motion people would show up to help.”

She emphasized that through good will and sacrifices by people eager to keep the company growing, Opera Fayetteville has reached its eighth season in strong footing. To date it is still the only company in Arkansas (and one of very few in the greater region) that focuses exclusively on modern works.

This year marks a special moment in the company’s history as it settles into a new space. They will be at the Walton Arts Center’s smaller performance space in downtown Fayetteville, the Starr Theater. Ryan and music director, Cris Frisco, have chosen to take advantage of this intimate locale by programming a chamber opera by Nico Muhly, “Dark Sisters.”

Bringing Early Muhly To Town

Muhly ranks among the most prolific and admired modern composers in the classical tradition. His interests are broad and his output is eclectic, drawing from various traditions including modern minimalism, late Renaissance choral music, global folk, and pop.

In recent years he has become a major player on the opera scene with two well-received psychological thrillers, “Two Boys” commissioned by the English National Opera, and “Marnie,” which recently premiered at the Met. Though the musical language of these operas is not particularly edgy within the operatic idiom of the last few decades, Muhly excels at creating tense atmosphere with shimmering musical textures and effective vocal writing.

Fayetteville will get the chance to hear the prehistory of his Muhly’s recent successes.

“Dark Sisters” premiered in New York City in 2011 and was his first opera. Though more modest in scale than his latest operatic works, it takes on serious, complex matters in a way that will be familiar to those who have heard Muhly before and that will prove rewarding to those who haven’t.

With a libretto by Stephen Karaman, “Dark Sisters” tells the story of a polygamist Mormon family in the aftermath of a government raid that removed the family’s children under suspicion of abuse. The opera examines how the five women cope with the traumatic aftermath of this event and their relationship with their shared husband, a self-proclaimed prophet.

The opera also explores how the women interact with the media and the outside world in dealing with their predicament. Act two is largely an inventive scene between the mothers who are being interviewed by King (who is  played by Act I’s husband) on television.

The drama is based on events linked to a rogue Mormon sect, The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), and the controversies surrounding one recent leader, Warren Jeffs. More broadly, it deals with a range of vital issues about family, self-realization, tradition, fear, and love.

Putting on a show about a sect that few truly know is tricky. As a result director Andreas Hager wants to emphasize universals.

“I realized I didn’t want to get bogged down in all of the details, we didn’t want people to get too bogged down, so we have a very simple stage,” Hager told OperaWire. “What’s been really important to us is to keep the humanity in these characters when they are not always sympathetic to us personally.”  He suggested that while we might never know what these women have gone through, we can connect with some of their core feelings.

Micaela Baranello, head of publicity and musicologist at the University of Arkansas, and the production’s conductor, Cris Frisco both spoke about the tautness of drama and music.

Baranello explained how Muhly uses musical heterophony to show the variety of feelings the wives have about their situations while using minimalist techniques so that wisps of repetition “to reflect that these characters feel that they are stuck and that they are working through these and they need to repeat themselves and work toward something.”

Then, she explained, “the music breaks into these hidden textures that sometimes sound like Anglican church which reveals this singularity of purpose that these characters’ faith has traditionally given them, but that’s in conflict with this circular motion of minimalism at the same time.”

Frisco takes a broader view and describes a general movement from polyphony to homophony and how family dynamics are put front and center in the music: the women start by singing “in unison as a family unit and then their musical languages start to shard away.”

If there is a rich musical vocabulary in Muhly’s opera, the ultimate pleasures are simpler. Frisco noted, after a meaningful pause:  “There are these moments in the score of rhapsodic beauty, that the women have this incredible beauty as part of their lives.”

Ryan put it almost elementally: “It is magical music that takes you to another world.”

In My Backyard

During the interview, it was suggested to the production team that establishing an opera presence in a region that has not traditionally had one must seem like an uphill battle. Ryan, Cisco, and Hager seemed un-phased. They sounded jazzed about the local scene. Local talent has come together to help make this production happen and there is a growing core constituency for what Opera Fayetteville does.

Performances for “Dark Sisters” will take place at the Starr Theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas on March 29-30 at 7:30 PM.

Note from the writer: (I do a lot of traveling, some of it pretty hard, to go to the opera. I can’t hide my excitement about getting to see one just a walk away from home. More importantly, these efforts are a present reminder that passion for the art-form exists outside of  American big cities and that there is a thirst for opera that can’t be quenched at the cinema or on YouTube.)


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