Friday, September 29, 2023

"Dark Sisters" by Journey North Opera Company at the Southern Theater

I don't go to opera very often; I just don't have time with all of the plays and musicals happening in town that usually take priority. But when my fellow Twin Cities Theater Blogger Carol from Minnesota Theater Love talked on our podcast about how excited she was to see Dark Sisters by Journey North Opera, and then I was invited to a dress rehearsal, I couldn't resist. Written in 2011 by Nick Muhly with libretto by playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans and Sons of the Prophet), Dark Sisters is about women in a polygamous FLDS sect. I prefer my opera modern, in English, and on the shorter side, so this show (running about 90 or so minutes with an intermission) definitely fit the bill. It doesn't hurt that I'm a little obsessed with cults, including Jon Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven about the history of Mormonism (recently turned into a mini-series on Hulu). Dark Sisters is indeed a fascinating story, a unique one for opera, and it's also a beautiful modern score that's gorgeously played by a 13-piece on-stage orchestra and sung by a seven-person cast, six of them women (Journey North is committed to having at least 50% of their casts be women or non-binary, a rarity in traditional opera). It plays for one short weekend only, so head to the Southern Theater (a gorgeous place for opera both aesthetically and acoustically) to take a journey with these Dark Sisters.

photo by Steve Campbell
The opera is performed in two acts, sung in English but with supertitles projected on the back wall of the theater in case you don't catch the words, which for the most part are easy to understand. They've added a set of risers under the arch, creating a multi-level performance space that's well utilized, as well as the ample space in front. My favorite thing about seeing opera in the Southern is that the orchestra sits on one side of the stage, in full view of the audience, which I love to watch almost as much as the singers. Brian Dowdy directs the 13-piece orchestra on this complex and layered score, with some at times jarring modern sounds (fitting for this story) and at times beautiful melodies and harmonies.

The story features five sister-wives shortly after their compound was raided and their children taken away (think Warren Jeffs). The wives mourn for their children, but are still under the spell of the prophet (Karl Buttermann). Except for Eliza (played by understudy Meagan Seubert at the dress rehearsal I attended), who begins a conversation with God as she questions her arranged teenage marriage to this man who isn't kind to her. In the second act we see the wives (also including Christine Killian, KrisAnne Weiss, Tracey Engleman, and Madison Holtze) go on a TV interview to defend their way of life and beg for their children to be returned to them. But brave Eliza tells the truth, and is ostracized for it, even by her own daughter (Anna Beth Baker), who herself is about to enter an arranged marriage to a much older man. There's no happy ending, the abuse continues, but there is some satisfaction that at least one woman was able to see the light and stand up for herself.

photo by Steve Campbell
This talented cast, directed by Amanda Carlson, portrays all of the complexities of the situation. Each woman is unique, and manages to engender empathy despite their choices (but is it really a choice when you're raised to believe something with no option for outside education?). As much as these children, especially the girls, were in real danger being raised in this community, is taking them away from their mothers the right way to go about it? (See also the Netflix documentary Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, a refrain that echos throughout the opera.)

Dark Sisters has three performances only - this weekend at the Southern Theater. While typically Journey North Opera only does one full production a year, you can follow them for other performances and activities throughout the year.