Interview: Nico Muhly

Gotham Chamber Opera premieres the red-hot composer's creepy polygamist saga.

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Caitlin Lynch in Dark Sisters

Caitlin Lynch in Dark Sisters Photograph: Richard Termine

As Nico Muhly ticked off a list of operas that have influenced him—The Magic Flute, Nixon in China, The Turn of the Screw—during a recent interview, he was interrupted by deafening street noise. "There are Hare Krishnas outside of my house! What the...wait, it's not Hare Krishnas, it's Chinese people," he says and then pauses. "Oh, you know what it is? I see it now. It's the Mitzvah Tank. But there are also Hare Krishnas on Delancey Street and then there are Chinese people doing martial arts."

This classic only-in-New York scene parallels Muhly's own creative world, a supercharged magnet that attracts all forms of culture without regard to brow elevation. Muhly's mind overflows with references and ideas, giving the impression that he could find common ground with just about anyone. This surely makes him a congenial collaborator, which, in combination with his flair for drama, portends a promising future in opera.

His first opera, Two Boys, an Internet-crime drama with a libretto by Craig Lucas, premiered at the English National Opera over the summer and will arrive at the Metropolitan Opera, which co-commissioned it, during the 2013--14 season. But for New Yorkers, our first chance to check out a Muhly opera will come sooner. In what amounts to a considerable coup, Dark Sisters will be premiered by Gotham Chamber Opera, a boutique company founded by conductor Neal Goren. Familiar to most New York opera lovers, Gotham specializes in neglected works, including last season's impressive rendition of Haydn's Il mondo della luna at the Hayden Planetarium.

Another co-commission, this one shared with Brooklyn's Music-Theatre Group and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Dark Sisters tells the story of six sister-wives living in a polygamous community in Colorado City, Arizona. Muhly, who hails from the same Vermont hometown as Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, had been fascinated by the dramatic implications of multiple wives when he met Stephen Karam, a playwright who crashed onto the scene in 2007 with his dark high-school comedy, Speech & Debate. Karam took up Muhly's idea and ran with it.

"There's so much nested complexity in these issues, with religion, sex, kids and the idea of government interfacing with the bedroom, that you almost need an opera about it," quips Muhly. "A lot of the language that Stephen uses is coming from this obsessive tradition of pioneer diary-keeping. What happens when you take the kind of Laura Ingalls Wilder-ness of it and put it under very, very high pressure—all in the same house, all married to the same man? Everybody is completely repressed and the kids have been taken away, so there's a real reason to get some 19th-century Italian drama in there."

The severe setting of the Arizona desert was a major inspiration for Muhly as well as for director Rebecca Taichman and the design team led by Leo Warner. While he was composing the opera, Muhly traveled to Colorado City. "It's not like small-town America with a secret," he recalls. "This is a really intense landscape. I wanted to take outdoor music and explode it into this American West thing."

He alludes to Copland, who was famous for evoking American landscapes with open harmonic intervals, and Messiaen's humongous symphonic tone poem From the Canyons to the Stars, which was also inspired by Arizona's Red Rock Country. The Americana angle is further underscored by the use of Mormon hymns and songs.

And lest we forget that Muhly is a Philip Glass protg, he also borrows freely from post-minimalist traditions: "I wanted the women's mantras about 'keeping sweet' and 'putting it on a shelf' to come from a sort of Meredith Monk vocal space, with repetitive fragments that are ritualistic and beautiful and menacing."

Muhly is quick to insist that every musical gesture is intended to boost the show's theatricality, a process made easier by casting it before the music was written and having an impressive number of workshops. "Discomfort for beauty is a funny idea, it's very sort of Black Swan, but knowing who I was writing for helped me to strike that balance," he explains. "I knew that if I was writing something technically difficult, I was doing it for a reason. For me, my judgment of an opera is always, Was it a good night out at the theater?"

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