Dark Sisters

Fleeing Screentime

The interview with King and Ruth’s sudden breakdown and flight from the room clearly strain the wives’ emotions as the interview moves towards its conclusion. An intense and repeated rhythm in the orchestra accompanies Eliza’s soliloquy as she attempts to find the courage to speak out before the interview ends. In Act I, she had addressed God with the question “were you ever listening to me?” She employs the same melody here, trying out different iterations of the same basic line and building in intensity by rising in pitch, as she repeatedly states: “You always meant for me to save myself.” She reaches a high G-sharp on the final “myself” and then ends an octave lower on G-sharp as she sings “Lucinda.” King moves to end the program landing on a G-sharp on “thank you,” but Eliza erupts at that instant with a fortissimo A-flat, the equivalent pitch, leaping down a minor ninth on the word “no.” In a sense, King has unknowingly encouraged Eliza to speak out by reinforcing her G-sharps. Eliza tells all, and then calls out to her daughter through the television camera as her sisterwives denounce her and deny her words.

Photo: Richard Termine for the Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group production in November 2011
Margaret Lattimore, Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Zetlan, Caitlin Lynch, Jennifer Check, and Kevin Burdette as the sisterwives and King during the Act II talk show.

As Eliza speaks of her lingering doubts about whether to stay or go from her polygamous family, saying “I still wonder and yet…,” she first clashes in pitch with the other wives, then joins their pitches, but clashes again on “and yet” — a perfect expression of her conflicted psychological state. Eliza now tells of her own revelation, seeming to take over musically from where the Prophet had left off early in Act I. She relates that an angel has told her that all of the sisterwives should break free from their days “full of loneliness and isolation” and should join the outside world. A repeated and descending series of chords might seem aimed at holding her back, but Eliza soars above them. To repeated strong perfect fifths, Eliza calls out to Lucinda to maintain “courage,” and then runs out through the audience, breaking through the illusions of the theater and entering directly into our world. The TV news show motto returns in the orchestra to clear the scene.

Eliza’s dramatic exit aria may have caused us to forget Ruth’s earlier flight from the interview, but an orchestral interlude transfers us to the desert landscape and to Ruth who has climbed the mesa. We return here to the harmonic style of earlier in the opera and the sounds of the geophone likewise return to depict the setting in sound. Having climbed the cliff by herself, Ruth is proud and says: “Look what I did. Only lonely me, up on a rock.” When she prophesizes that the children will be returned to the ranch, the music suddenly takes us back to the TV studio, accompanied by that TV news motto. King — his voice leaping and nearly cracking with excitement over the promise of “exclusive footage” — announces that the State Supreme Court has ordered the return of the children to their families. Just as suddenly, the music brings us back to Ruth, offering yet another example of the non-linear dramatic approach of much of the opera. Ruth’s vocal line plummets as she sings of going “home” and then she falls to her death.

Photo: Richard Termine for the Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group production in November 2011
Caitlin Lynch, Kristina Bachrach, Kevin Burdette, Jennifer Zetlan, Jennifer Check, and Margaret Lattimore at Ruth’s funeral in Act II.

Ruth’s final words dovetail with the start of the well-known hymn tune “Abide With Me” in the orchestra. Given that Ruth has chosen to reach “home” by leaping to her death, this tune assumes a certain poignancy and even irony here. In a mere four measure seamless transition — again defying the logic of space and time — we arrive at Ruth’s funeral and hear the remaining sisterwives, Lucinda, and the Prophet singing a beautiful arrangement of this traditional hymn at her grave. In the face of all of their calls throughout the opera to “keep sweet” and “abide” at home in their polygamous family, Ruth has found freedom and home through death.

From here to the end the opera moves quickly. The Prophet offers a sermon affirming their status as a chosen people of God and eulogizing Ruth’s commitment to their faith in the attempt to reassure and comfort his wives. However, dissonant clusters in the orchestra seem to undercut his claims concerning Ruth’s “unwavering” belief in plural marriage and his melismatic and ornamented delivery of “purity” sounds anything but pure. Eliza, dressed as a member of the outside world, arrives singing to the same triple meter tune she used in chapter five of Act I to the same words: “When I was a girl.” Eliza focuses her entire attention on Lucinda, attempting to convince her daughter to leave the compound with her to start a new life, to find a new home. Lucinda — no longer speaking as a vision or in a flashback or as a child — answers her mother forcefully and directly, denying her claims and denouncing her apostasy. Lucinda asks her mother “where is your place in the world?” and in one of the largest vocal leaps in the opera, Lucinda demands “tell me” on a falling eleventh. In a rather devastating musical move, Lucinda proclaims her allegiance to the Prophet by saying “Father and I pray each night for you” to the tune of the same children’s hymn she sang earlier in the opera. Lucinda declares that she would rather have seen her mother dead than to have witnessed her break with her faith. Eliza replies that she will always love her daughter and will always wait for her in the outside world. And then…

How does the opera end? In our next episode of this online course we will first zoom in on the final moments of this drama. In what condition are we (and Eliza) left in at the opera’s conclusion? What interpretive conclusions can we make about Dark Sisters? What has happened to the opera since its premiere? Stay tuned!