Dark Sisters

Act II: Bringing CNN to the Stage

Why Do We Laugh Now?

As the house lights come up following the end of the first act of Dark Sisters, we likely avoid making direct eye contact with our neighbors. We might give each other one of those awkward tight lipped, raised eyebrow grins and emit a half-voiced “whew.” Indeed, it may require several minutes before we decompress a bit and feel ready to comment on the intense drama we have just experienced. Returning to our seats at the end of intermission we subconsciously brace ourselves for the resumption of the gripping tale. But then the stage lights come up, we hear the opening motive rush by immediately followed by a stereotypical “TV news” minimalist percussive motto, and we laugh.

Photo: Richard Termine for the Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group production in November 2011
Kevin Burdette in Act 2 of Dark Sisters.

Our laughter is provoked most obviously by the shock of recognition as we are presented with a Larry King Live-style set complete with large background screens. Without warning we suddenly find ourselves framed as a TV audience in an immediate present. Perhaps our giggling at this moment is to some extent a form of nervous laughter. Perhaps we are not entirely comfortable being implicated in the story, recognizing our own fascination with the lurid melodrama of TV news. Perhaps we even fear the suggestion that we too live operatic lives without acknowledging it, that the extreme emotions of opera are normally held in check just below the surface in our daily existence and that these emotions can and will burst forth from our mouths, bodies and in our actions. Being coopted within the world of the drama in this fashion nearly always makes an audience feel more than a bit uncomfortable.

Audiences have tended to react similarly in recent decades to productions of older operas that are reset in the present, most famously exemplified by the Peter Sellars productions of Mozart’s operas. A new operatic genre that emerged in the late 20th-century derived a good deal of its energy and notoriety from presenting the present (or very recent past) on the operatic stage. Requiring no updating, these so-called “CNN operas” proved to be some of the most popular and most reviled works of musical postmodernism. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen operas based on the newsworthy lives of such figures as Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Marilyn Monroe, Anna Nicole Smith and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. John Adams’s 1987 Nixon in China, particularly in the production designed by Sellars, focused not only on a recent historical event but recreated specific iconic images in freeze frame fashion on the stage. Indeed, in Nixon’s first aria the overexcited President celebrates and reflects on the nature of news as he makes it before our eyes. Philip Glass’s “portrait operas” (particularly the 1976 Einstein on the Beach and 1980 Satyagraha) are rather different in spirit, but in numerous fundamental ways can be understood historically as precursors to the CNN opera genre.

At the start of Act II in Dark Sisters, King appears in his television studio on one side of the stage and the mothers are seated in their home for the televised interview on the other side. We also see the live screen images of the wives as they are addressed in turn by King in the interview. Our focus, or at least my focus, is drawn to the screen rather than to the actual bodies of the women. Thus, as in our daily life, the framed video presentation trumps physical reality. (Consider how difficult it is to focus on our dining companions at restaurants that surround us with multiple TV screens.) As the interview progresses, an abrupt change in lighting and the appearance of projected images of the women on a very large upstage screen marks a turn to their individual private thoughts. We shift suddenly from what the director Rebecca Taichman has referred to as the “choreography of repression” as they sit for this interview, to closeups that seem to take us inside their minds. Here, the video technology on stage claims to offer the truth in these projected and sung soliloquies. Once again we are drawn to look at the screen projections rather than at the bodies of the performers. In the first act, staged flashbacks and offstage voices revealed Eliza’s innermost thoughts and transported us across temporal zones. In Act II such revelations and transmissions from the past are achieved through technology.