Nico Mulhy/Stephen Karam, DARK SISTERS: Eve-Lyn de la Haye (Zina), Heather Pawsey (Presendia), Karen Ydenberg (Almera), Megan Latham (Ruth), Melanie Krueger (Eliza),  Thomas Goerz (Prophet), Eden Tremayne (Lucinda); conducted by Kinza Tyrrell, directed by Amiel Gladstone, Vancouver Playhouse, November 27, 2015.  

Photos by Tim Matheson

Photos by Tim Matheson

Ownership of women is one of the great sins of the patriarchy, robbing them of their human agency. Perhaps the most pernicious manifestation is polygamy, which demotes women to sexual chattel at the same time as it inflicts on them the psychological damage of emotional insecurity and a slave mentality. It is deeply saddening to see one segment of the population thus demeaned by another with its presumption, hypocrisy, and abuse of power.

So, the subject is ideal for operatic treatment, not least because opera loves suffering women. And Dark Sisters offers them aplenty. The story—the crisis precipitated by governmental custodial seizure of the children of a fundamentalist Mormon commune—takes an unexpected yet promising direction. Rather than have the dramatic trajectory hang on the conflict between commune and government, it removes such conflict from the stage by having ‘the prophet’ leave for the desert to find divine inspiration in resolving the issue. This leaves the dramatic ‘action’ with the women onstage, which takes the form of anxious waiting, a series of reflections and reminiscent narratives, and their Act 2 interviews with Larry King—about underage marriages, the expulsion of the young men by the old, the deaths of children, and suchlike. Some of the women defend their way of life, not out of satisfaction, one feels, but rather out of fear at their lack of options and plain old-fashioned brainwashing. The last, and most compelling, dramatic strand is the growing dissent of the chief character, Eliza, against a December-May marriage ‘arranged’ for her daughter by the prophet. This reaches a climax in Act 2 with Eliza’s shunning by the community, including her daughter Lucinda, angry and fearful that her mother’s resistance will rob her of salvation.


All this makes the action psychological rather than external, and is an effective means of revealing different responses to a life determined by patriarchal tyranny. But herein lies the problem: despite the growing rift between Eliza and the others, the opera feels too much like a disquisition, or a series of disquisitions, rather than a portrayal of dramatic confrontations. Reflective narration never makes a very compelling plot device, and the women remain inert and one-dimensional. Ultimately, the work flags, despite our sympathetic engagement with the ‘issue’.


I am not sure how much the music helped the opera’s cause: the vocal lines were generally uningratiating and unkind to the voices, particularly the women’s. At first I wondered whether it was the acoustics of the Playhouse that made the women’s voices sound strident, but then I realized it was as much the vocal writing itself, with leaps that seemed arbitrary and ungracious, and contours that were angular and harsh. And why is it that so many modern composers write vocal lines that end downwards on a grace note? Muhly does this over and over again, trying this reviewer’s patience almost from the beginning. Nor was the orchestral writing particularly inspired: of interest only fleetingly, it often seemed thin and angular, leaving me wishing for a fuller orchestra, something with richer timbres and more arresting textures. This is not the effect a chamber opera should have. Only after the TV interview with Larry King in Act 2 did the music pick up, with a lovely number for Ruth remembering her dead children and a strong ending with Eliza’s querying voice against the banal certainties of the hymn ‘Love at Home.’

The cast did their best with what they were given. Thomas Goertz as the Prophet was suitably complacent.  Melanie Kreuger as Eliza convincingly played the tormented dissenter, even though she was a trifle shrill at times. Megan Latham as Ruth sang beautifully and with conviction, especially in her Act 2 lament. Heather Pawsley as Presendia also sang well, as did Karen Ydenberg as Almera, presenting as much characterization as their parts allowed. Eden Tremayne made a persuasive Lucinda, and a complex one, given her conflicted feelings about her mother’s attempt at rescue.

As for the production, I found it lacked imagination. The set was unattractive and undernourished, and while the projected images of Goertz in his alternative role as Larry King worked well, the presentation as a whole remained too static, the singers simply lining up and delivering.  While Vancouver Opera is to be congratulated for its continued championing of new works on tough subjects, the issue of patriarchal abuse of women deserved better than Dark Sisters.


© Harvey De Roo 201