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Ladies first: Muhly's "Dark Sisters" precedes "Two Boys" as US opera debut

Back in June, when I wrote about small-scale opera productions and the future of contemporary opera, the powers-that-be were not yet ready to announce a new project that epitomizes what I was writing about. Now the word is out: like the Spanish Armada, three smaller organizations have nosed in under the bow of the mightly Metropolitan Opera and seized the American opera debut of Nico Muhly, the hotter-than-hot young composer who is currently working on “Two Boys,” with playwright Craig Lucas, for the Met and English National Opera. Before “Two Boys” makes it to the Met in 2013-14, however (though after its ENO debut in June, 2011), Muhly will oversee the premiere of another new opera, “Dark Sisters,” which will have its world premiere in New York in November, 2011, courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and the Music-Theatre Group.

It’s a coup for the Gotham Chamber Opera, which has been making waves in New York for years with quirky productions of little-known works that seem to attract a kind of excitement and buzz many other companies could only dream of (its most recent offering was the world premeire of Montsalvatge’s 1947 opus “El gato con botas,” Puss in Boots, which got rave reviews and may tour in future). It’s validation for the once-conservative Philadelphia opera company, which has over the last few years launched a series presenting offbeat works in a theater smaller than their home-base Academy of Music (coming in June, 2011: Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra). And it’s an example of the core mandate of the Music Theatre Group, which is devoted to developing and presenting new work (I wrote about the recording of Arjuna’s Dilemma, a fusion of jazz and Indian music and elements of narrative that they helped develop, in 2008).

“Dark Sisters,” with a libretto by Stephen Karam, is about the women of a fundamentalist, polygamous offshoot of the Mormon Church, inspired by the stories of real-life raids on compounds in 1953 and 2008. Muhly will be speaking at a press unveiling tonight about his inspiration for the work; he may also be inspired by an impressive cast, including Jennifer Check (whom I have loved in the past), the stentorian Brenda Harris, and Jennifer Zetlan, another currently hot singer who created the role of the Aviator in Daron Hagen’s “Amelia” at the Seattle Opera (and was recently seen as Xenia, Boris’s daughter, in the Met’s new “Boris Godunov”).

This venture is partly possible because Muhly is tremendously prolific; not many composers can turn out two new operas fast enough to see world premieres in June and November of the same year. But however the opera itself pans out, it’s already an exciting example of the possibilities of collaboration, and the way that smaller companies have the flexibility of scheduling and programming to get a jump on bigger ones. Get your tickets now.

By Anne Midgette  | October 28, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  national, news, opera  
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