Opera a powerful medium for composer Nico Muhly

 

Rising star would rather be writing one rather than intellectualizing its form

 
 
 
 
Eve-Lyn de la Haye stars as Zina in the Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters, which run until Dec. 12 at the Vancouver Playhouse.
 
 

Eve-Lyn de la Haye stars as Zina in the Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters, which run until Dec. 12 at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Photograph by: Tim Matheson

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Dark Sisters

Today to Dec. 12 | Vancouver Playhouse

Tickets and info: from $35, vancouveropera.caMost of the hype about Dark Sisters, Vancouver Opera’s latest fling with contemporary opera, has focused on the plot: an intense tale set in a present day polygamist compound “somewhere in the Southwest U.S.” This story, of course, has an extra measure of resonance in British Columbia.

But what hasn’t been trumpeted as much is the remarkable achievement of Dark Sister’s composer, Nico Muhly, one of the brightest (and youngest) international composing stars.

Born in Vermont in 1981, Muhly grew up in Providence, then went on to earn an English degree at Columbia and a Masters in composition at Juilliard. He has a more mid-Atlantic focus than many North American composers, with several projects developed for and premiered by ensembles in the UK, including his second opera, Two Boys, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2011. He’s currently developing a piece based on the classic Hitchcock thriller Marnie for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, to be premiered in the 2019/20 season.

The best Vancouver performance of his music — so far — was a concert in which counter-tenor Iestyn Davies sang Muhly’s haunting song Old Bones.

Mulhy has produced a daunting catalogue of works and is in demand worldwide. He spoke with The Vancouver Sun earlier this month from his Lower East Side New York base of operations.

Contemporary opera is often about contemporary themes, a trend certainly advanced by big works like John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer or Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole. But opera remains opera, a genre rife with traditions, shibboleths and taboos.

“I’m really of two minds about opera,” admits Muhly. “Yes, it’s an historical form — trained voices in an acoustic setting. There’s an enormous power in those works.”

He cites Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (“the perfect chamber opera”), Berg’s Wozzeck, and Wagner’s Das Rheingold as particularly important examples of opera at its best.

“Opera’s a way of learning how to use voice to tell a story, in a way that has proved really powerful all these years. So many people are now coming out of the closet as opera fans.”

Does a composer target specific audiences in say, London as opposed to New York?

“We all have passports now. My friends are completely happy to roam the globe and see the same opera in London or New York or Paris, in wildly different productions. Emerging or just-emerged opera fans don’t care about any of that. For instance, one of the women from the first production of Dark Sisters is now in Fiddler on the Roof. All this style-sensitive or genre-sensitive anxiety in generational. If you’re 40 to 60 you’ve already lived through the musical style wars, minimalism, etc., and already licked your wounds. My generation is much more chill about these things.

“What irks me about opera now is this assumption that whatever you write is somehow making a comment on the form, rather than putting together a satisfying evening of musical theatre. You find yourself speaking the same language but differently — it can have similar structures, it can have wildly different structures, it’s all a little bit Twilight Zone. I’d rather be writing an opera than thinking about what an opera is.”

What initially attracted Muhly to Dark Sisters’s central theme?

“Gotham Chamber Opera (of blessed memory) asked me for something that would use a preponderance of women singers. Since I was born in a small town just a few miles from where Joseph Smith was born, it occurred to me to deal with the story of Western expansions in North America, the migration west.

“Polygamy and the legal status of polygamists are not clear-cut. It’s this intersection of political and social anxieties, the government in the bedroom, the status of children, the separation of church and state. The complexity is that this is rooted in something really ancient — patriarchy — but is also happening right now.”

The international spotlight is a mixed blessing, how does it play out for a young composer?

“I’m really happy with my compositional life. I have so many great projects, and I find that in a lot of ways they complement each other. Writing chamber music helps you learn to write opera, which helps you learn how to orchestrate pop music. I’ve never written a string quartet, I’m terrified by it. I find opera less frightening because once you get into the rehearsal room, you are in a community, part of a team. Chamber music, not so much!”

 
 
 
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Eve-Lyn de la Haye stars as Zina in the Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters, which run until Dec. 12 at the Vancouver Playhouse.
 

Eve-Lyn de la Haye stars as Zina in the Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters, which run until Dec. 12 at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Photograph by: Tim Matheson

 
Eve-Lyn de la Haye stars as Zina in the Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters, which run until Dec. 12 at the Vancouver Playhouse.
Nico Muhly: “Opera’s a way of learning how to use voice to tell a story, in a way that has proved really powerful all these years. So many people are now coming out of the closet as opera fans."
 
 
 
 
 
 
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