BWW Review: DARK SISTERS at Oklahoma City University Introduces Contemporary, Progressive Opera to the Heartland
Oklahoma City University's Bass School of Music presented the 2011 opera DARK SISTERS by Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam. Telling the story of "sister wives" in a modern-day polygamist sect, the subject matter certainly breaks new ground in an art form that many would (mistakenly) view as outdated. By presenting this kind of work in Oklahoma City, OCU proves their commitment to prepare students for work in today's artistic landscape, ensuring their readiness for the future beyond graduation.
DARK SISTERS' stand out feature is its score by Nico Muhly, whose work includes scoring recent independent films like the Sundance Film Festival winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the Daniel Radcliffe starrer Kill Your Darlings. Muhly often collaborates with playwrights, such as Craig Lucas on his earlier opera Two Boys, and in this case Stephen Karam, lending a realism to his work not found in many other operas. I found Muhly's arias to be magnetic and engaging, while still taking musical risks and pushing boundaries. Stephen Karam - who was recently awarded the Tony for Best Play and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Humans - captured a poetic sense of aloofness with his libretto. I did find myself thankful for the supertitles, in order to fully appreciate Karam's work; as with many operatic performances, the singers sometimes prioritized timbre over diction, vocalization above dramaturgy.
That being said, all the voices were unanimously sound, especially considering this is a university production. I was notably impressed with P.T. Mahoney as the Prophet and AlysSa Jackson as Eliza (who portrayed the roles on the night I was in attendance; the show is double-cast, as many university productions are.) Mahoney's muscular bass-baritone contrasted nicely with the many higher voices...this is a show about sister wives, after all. Jackson's impressive range was on display throughout the evening, as she held her own, standing up to her husband, as a woman longing for significance beyond the world around her. Of the many female characters, I was particularly drawn to Lauren Urso's Lucinda and BrenNan Martinez's Ruth. Ursa provided some of the strongest acting choices of the night, showing me a full character arc as the daughter of Eliza. She offered a subtle, cinematic performance, and I understood every word she offered in her crystalline soprano. By contrast, Martinez's velvety contralto stood out in the choral moments, and her featured aria in Act Two was a visual and aural highlight of the evening.
I am pleased to see Oklahoma City University producing new work, exposing their students to cutting-edge artists and composers and not merely focusing on the Puccinis and Wagners of the operatic canon. Composer Nico Muhly was even in attendance as an artist-in-residence for the week, providing students a firsthand opportunity to learn from and work directly with a relevant artist in the industry beyond Oklahoma. OCU is known for the successes of many of their alumni - Kelli O'Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Lara Teeter etc. - and this new crop of up-and-coming talent will surely make their mark alongside them. I applaud the University's choice of material, and look forward to seeing where these students, brimming with potential, will land...surely among the stars.
DARK SISTERS was presented February 17th-19th, 2017 by Oklahoma City University's Bass School of Music.
Photo Credit: Wendy Mutz, Mutz Photography