The Island of the Ugly Sisters is based on a true story from the American South.
Late one night in 1852 in a small Middle Tennessee farming community, my great-great grandfather Stephen Worley heard a wagon. The next morning, marooned on a foggy sandbar in a wide creek in front of his home were two women and five girls. They were the ugliest living beings anyone had ever seen.
Worley, who never refused help to a stranger, rescued them and gave them a house and eleven acres of land. They lived out their lives there, and while none of them married or even mingled with their neighbors, they became much loved for their tenderness towards the sick and the dead. When the War Between the States broke out, Worley put his liquid assets into gold and gave it to the women, who sewed it into the lining of their clothing. They wore his gold for the duration of the war and, when peace came, returned it to him.
Over the years, the women never revealed who they were, where they were from, who abandoned them that foggy night, or why. The community called them ‘the Higgs women,’ although to this day there is no proof that was their name. All seven lived to old age, and as they died they were buried side by side in one straight line along the Natchez Trace.
For many years, I had wanted to do something with this story, and when I received the commission from the Opéra de Poche, it seemed the perfect fit.
I made the women sisters because seven sisters are mythic and, for drama, added storms and floods, angels and demons, love and tragedy. The opera’s themes grew naturally from my characters, who were quite opinionated, even in the early drafts, and spoke for themselves.
I find great courage in the travails of Alice, Henry, Luke, and Sophronia. Who can say their struggles are all that different from those of seven ugly women, who many years ago in a community of strangers chanced upon the healing power of love?