Dark Sisters

Speech and Song; Freedom and Serialism

With Act II of Dark Sisters Muhly and Karam have achieved a feat worthy of the opera history books for they have created a literal “CNN opera.” The opera incorporates the words of a 19th-century LDS leader in the Prophet’s speech early in Act I and employs a late 20th-century statement by a FLDS leader in the Prophet’s final speech at the end of the opera. However, at the start of Act II the 2008 raid on the FLDS YFZ ranch in Texas is explicitly referenced. We see actual images from the media coverage of the 2008 events on the stage screens. In fact, the words and visuals of a specific Larry King Live episode in which King interviewed the mothers of the YFZ ranch have been brought to the operatic stage. A recording of this April 16, 2008, interview, which Taichman has said she and the cast viewed numerous times and that it “was with us all the way,” is available here:

Several CNN operas have used the actual words of their celebrity subjects in their libretti. By basing this operatic interview directly on the video of Larry King’s original interview, Karam and Muhly have gone further in this direction. We not only hear some of the phrases that were spoken in this televised event from the recent past, but the speech rhythms, deportment, and physical gestures of the original participants are reproduced by the operatic performers. Who knew that Larry King’s trademark husky voice and no nonsense speech patterns possessed such operatic potential?

The wives (excepting Eliza and Ruth) frequently respond to King in a multi-headed “wife voice.” (In the actual interview, their speech did overlap at a couple of points and they occasionally repeated each other’s phrases as though repeating a memorized melody.) Their ardent statements, interlocking lines and dense texture cause King to respond “wow,” but he repeatedly comes back at them attempting to break through their repetitive and (likely) rehearsed answers. Sung in uniform block chords, “we just care about the children” is clearly a memorized motto they were instructed to emit as frequently as possible in the interview. When King refers to their home as a “compound,” the wives retort: “It’s our ranch and it’s our home.” They sing this answer to — and are accompanied by — the opening motive of the opera, here stretched out in quarter notes. Since this is the first time the motive is sung in the opera, perhaps its meaning is finally defined at this point. If this melodic gesture functions as a Wagnerian leitmotif of sorts, perhaps it symbolizes both the comforting familiarity and the confining restrictions of their home. When King prods and asks about their freedom, the wives respond: “We can leave any time we want to leave.” However, their monotone musical lines for this claim belie their freedom to roam.

A skilled interviewer, King is able to draw out from his subjects more than they had intended to reveal. Musically, his techniques involve picking up on the final pitch of a speaker’s utterance in order to encourage her to continue in the same vein. At other moments he seems deliberately to clash with the final pitch in one of the wives’ vocal lines in order to cut off a certain type of response that he is not interested in. King sings a perfect fifth leap on “genuine” to express his sympathy with their anguish, but then leaps a dissonant seventh to express the public’s shock at their “lifestyle.” King lays it on thick, dropping deep to a low pitch, as he asks them to “speak now from your heart.” He is particularly successful in coaxing Ruth. King repeatedly attempts to push the wives to admit their polygamous status and to reveal something about their husband. When Ruth intones on a D “he is on a business trip” King immediately latches on, singing Ds and Fs to “where does he work?” Ruth has been easily led and responds, illogically, “Las Vegas” on a D and F, thus musically echoing King.

Throughout this interview Muhly deftly shapes the music to signal every dramatic tension, every psychological twist and turn that these women undergo. As Ruth breaks down we hear her simple tune from her Act I recollection of her sons’ deaths. Reacting to Ruth’s breakdown, Presendia enters into soliloquy, worrying about her “blood sister” to Ruth’s triple meter melody. Presendia cascades melismatically as she remembers how healthy Ruth had been when they were children, but the word “children” abruptly brings her back on message and to the rhythmic, nearly monotone motto: “I just care about the children.” At that point a motoric ostinato in the orchestra suggests the intense struggle these women are experiencing to stay on message.

Muhly engages in one further bit of musical symbolism that results in a great insider musical joke. Spoiler and music theory alerts: What follows is a musicological revelation that I received upon consultation of the opera’s hitherto unanalyzed score. To appreciate this musical symbolism I will need to introduce a bit of esoteric modernist music theory. Here we go. King, rather bluntly, asks whether the wives “feel free there, at the ranch?” Zina, Almera and Presendia each respond in turn “why, I feel like the most free woman in the whole world!” The opera’s opening motive is repeated in the accompaniment, again suggesting its association with the compound/ranch as both cloister and home. Each woman sings this line freely in terms of rhythm, for the duration of each note is not fully specified in the score. However, each woman sings the line to the tune of a twelve-tone row. So, why exactly is this funny?

The twelve tone method of composition, a.k.a. “serialism,” developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s, was intended to reestablish discipline in the use of pitch for those composers who had jettisoned tonality and had been expressing themselves atonally in their music. The basic premise of twelve-tone music is that before composing “freely” in the “normal way,” one creates a strict ordered series of the 12 pitches in an octave. This original series or row will then govern the pitch content of the entire piece. In theory, the composer is obligated to work through all 12 pitches of the row before starting anew. In practice, the composer works simultaneously with a subset of the 48 possible forms of the original row in the composition. The possible forms are generated by transposing the row to start on the 12 different pitches, sending all of these transposed versions in reverse order, creating a mirrored inversion of the original row starting on each of the 12 different pitches, and reversing the order of those inverted forms of the row. Twelve-tone composers tend not to order the 12 pitches at random in the creation of the original or prime form of a piece’s row. Instead, they shape the row to bring out certain intervals and chord possibilities, to provide certain motives, and to function something like a theme. Zina and Almera’s rows emphasize tritones (the nastiest of intervals) and major and minor seconds (also intensely dissonant intervals). Thus, the women are proclaiming their freedom while chained to the twelve-tone row and emitting dissonant interval leaps. Get it?

Muhly is not a twelve-tone composer and would hardly restrict himself to this compositional method under normal circumstances. Even here he allows himself some freedom by having Almera’s row simply start on the eighth pitch of Zina’s instead of actually using one of the official 48 forms. Presendia’s row is unrelated to those of her two sisters and her first six pitches are sung in sync with Almera’s final six, setting up a whole bunch of nasty dissonances. And, if that was not funny enough, when Ruth enters she disrupts both the text and the twelve-tone method entirely by saying “I, too, feel like a woman in the world!,” ending up on a clear F major triad followed by an awkward pause in the score. Again, as the sisters try to regain composure after Ruth answers “Las Vegas,” we hear another twelve-tone row in the orchestra, serialism serving as a sign of their attempts to remain prim and proper. Alright, I admit we probably can expect belly laughs only from the musicologists in the house at this point, but this all is rather clever of Muhly, is it not?