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Dark Sisters opera explores the lives of a polygamous family operating as part of a renegade Mormon sect

Melanie Krueger, left, and Thomas Goerz rehearse for the Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters under the direction of conductor Kinza Tyrrell, right, in Vancouver, on Nov. 18, 2015.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

In its final year as a traditional year-round opera company, Vancouver Opera – which will mount an annual festival after this season – is continuing with its commitment to present contemporary work along with traditional repertoire.

This week a new production of Dark Sisters has its Canadian premiere. It's an American opera – co-commissioned by three U.S. companies, with an American composer and librettist and telling an American story, but it's also a story that has resonance in Canada, particularly in British Columbia.

Dark Sisters, which had its world premiere four years ago, focuses on a polygamous family operating as part of a renegade Mormon sect in the U.S. southwest. Five sister wives, all married to a man called the Prophet, are fighting to get their children back after they are removed by the state. One of the women, Eliza (Melanie Krueger), wants to leave the life, feeling it's the only way she can save her daughter from a similar, dark fate.

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The opera focuses on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (which split from mainstream Mormonism in the early 20th century) in the southern United States – the community of Short Creek and the infamous 2008 raid at the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) ranch near Eldorado, Tex. The resulting media coverage figures in the opera; an interview with Larry King ("We revisit their side of this shattering story," King said) has been turned into a set piece for the opera.

"Polygamy, as it is practised in North America, exists at the intersection of a lot of anxiety about the role of the government in the bedroom, about the involvement of children in the practices of their parents, about the right to statehood – all of this," explains composer Nico Muhly in an e-mail exchange. "That was one thing that drew me – and Stephen Karam, the librettist – to this story. The other thing that interested me is the necessary gender imbalance in polygamy – you have to have more women than men or the whole thing falls apart. Just musically, the sound of such a household fascinated me – the voices of children, multiple women, and one man."

In researching the opera, both Muhly and Karam travelled to Colorado City, Ariz., and read whatever they could about the origins of the Mormon faith, its leaders and the FLDS movement.

"Stephen Karam and I discovered something interesting which was when we started research – which was in 2009 or so – there was a markedly finite number of books written about this particular sect, the FLDS. There were a few memoirs written by escapees, a few blogs – but, rather like North Korea, there is precious little information in the outside world," explains Muhly, an in-demand U.S. composer who has also worked in film – including writing the Oscar-nominated score for The Reader.

"Many outside of the Mormon faith still only know the male icons, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; I wanted to fashion a story that put the women front and centre," adds Karam, also in an e-mail. "One rarely hears of Joseph and Brigham's wives, despite the fact that there were over 80.

"These real women and their journal entries inspired the modern fictional women in our story."

While the production is inspired by the communities in the southern U.S., Karam (a playwright whose work includes Speech & Debate and Sons of the Prophet) and Muhly both looked into the practice of polygamy by fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful, B.C. – which will also, no doubt, be top of mind for Vancouver audiences who have been exposed to years of news coverage about Bountiful.

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The VO production is the opera's third, and another theatre guy, Amiel Gladstone, is directing. A few years ago, Gladstone, who is based in Vancouver, was one of the beneficiaries (Kim Collier was another) of a VO program aimed at training mid-career theatre directors in opera.

Contemporary opera is a good fit for a theatre director, Gladstone says. Because a lot of work in opera involves standard, familiar repertoire, the lesser-known material can be challenging. But for Gladstone, who directs a lot of contemporary theatre, it's his comfort zone.

"We have our Shakespeare … but not everyone is doing Shakespeare in theatre; whereas in opera everybody's doing the same 100 operas … so everybody knows the repertoire," he says. "So when you do something like Dark Sisters, which is new, it's completely different for them in a way that a new play is not completely different for theatre. So in a way it's much scarier because you can't go back and listen to a bunch of recordings or watch a bunch of things and see what people have done before … and depending on your mindset it's either terrifying or exhilarating.

"The conversations in the rehearsal room are so different than if we were working on the standard repertoire and I think that also translates to the audience's take on it," Gladstone adds. "We're going to be talking about things that are happening right now in that world as opposed to how beautifully she sang that aria."

When Gladstone took on the project, he did so with the intention of presenting a balanced view of the FLDS, but as he researched the community, his opinion shifted. It became impossible to show the men in a positive light.

"The women are doing what they can within that world," he says. "They're not all saints but the women are doing what they can as the victims in a really odd power struggle. The men are, to me, completely unredeemable. These men are doing horrible things."

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The more mainstream Mormon church has been in the news recently, with Mormons involved in same-sex marriages to be considered apostates, and children of same-sex couples barred from being baptized until they're 18.

Gladstone calls that "a great way to rule yourself into irrelevance."

Karam, who is gay, says the Mormons he knows are good people – and have always been accepting of him and his sexuality. "But I'm not surprised," he adds. "I mean, this is an institution that didn't lift certain racial bans until 1978. I'm just disappointed they haven't learned from their past mistakes. Personally, I can think of nothing more Christ-like than a church that opens its doors to people of all walks of life. Can you imagine what Jesus would say about a church that turned away Mary Magdalene and the company she kept? Personally, I think Jesus would be having dinner with the gay Mormon families this week in solidarity."

Dark Sisters is at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Nov. 26-Dec. 12.

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