Nico Muhly: Rising opera star brings Mormonism to stage

Nico Muhly’s interest in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the polygamist offshoot Mormon sect based in the southwest, was a casual fascination – “the way that one gets obsessed with things on the internet,” he explains.

“It’s one of these fascinating American history wormholes,” Muhly continues. “Many of the pioneers were practicing polygamy, so these women who were sister wives really helped shape the American westward expansion.”

This bizarre history leaped immediately to mind when Muhly was commissioned to write a chamber opera for the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. Muhly teamed with playwright Stephen Karam on “Dark Sisters,” which draws from stories of government raids on FLDS compounds in 1953 and 2008 as well as accounts of the dozens of wives of Mormon founding fathers Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. To translate these stories into music, the 30-year-old composer, a leading light of the eclectic alternative classical scene, focused on the landscapes in which they unfold.

“This is a very site-specific religion,” Muhly says. “There’s a reason the parks in Utah have names like ‘Zion.’ So I wanted to do something that I’d never done as a composer, which is to try to write music that belonged to the environment. There’s an element of Americana to the score, references to folk songs that would have been sung not only in pioneer times but also in modern day polygamist homes.”

Why evolving scene of opera chose Philly

Patricia Kiernan Johnson, marketing and media manager at Opera America, said, “Philadelphia was chosen for Opera Conference 2012 because it is home to world-class training institutions like Curtis Institute and the Academy of Vocal Arts.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia has several field-leading initiatives that are encouraging the entire field to re-examine inherited practices. The very popular “Random Acts of Culture,” where the Opera Company of Philadelphia performs parts of opera at unlikely spots, such as Reading Terminal Market and Geno’s Steaks, is one of the initiatives that Johnson was referencing.

Their “flash mob” performance — no violence involved — at Macy’s has been seen over 7 million people on YouTube. Equally as innovative and far more prestigious, “Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts,” co-commissioned by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music Composition this year. It will be presented in Philadelphia next February. With their American Repertoire Program, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has committed to producing a new American opera each year for the next decade.

Center stage

Philadelphia will be the center of the universe in the opera world next week. Some 400 representatives from all the major American opera companies will be here June 13-16 for the annual Opera America conference.

– Both of Philadelphia’s opera companies, the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Center City Opera Theater (CCOT) will be premiering new American operas.

– The Opera of Philadelphia will be presenting Dark Sisters, a tale of teenage angst, confusion, and rebellion from a girl trying to escape her fundamentalist Mormon sect.

– Center City Opera Theater has turned Penn Professor Kathryn Watterson’s award winning book, “Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman,” into a gripping opera.

If you go

Opera Company of Philadelphia: “Dark Sisters”

June 8-17

Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center

Broad and Spruce Sts.

$21-$132, 215-893-1018

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