Metropolitan Opera to explore the internet’s dark side with Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys”
Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which will have its U.S. premiere Oct. 21 at the Metropolitan Opera, straddles two very different worlds.
One is the world of the Internet, the now-indispensable, globe-spanning digital network that 40 years ago was barely a gleam in the eye of tech-obsessed teens tinkering with clunky computers in Northern California suburban garages.
The other is opera, one of humankind’s most durable art forms, which dates back more than 400 years. Based on true events, Two Boys spins a tale of two teens caught in an Internet-enabled web of fantasy, deceit and ultimately all-too-real physical violence. Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas tell their story within the structure of arias, choruses, ensembles and recitative that has served composers since the days of Monteverdi. Commissioned by the Met, it is a co-production with the English National Opera, which presented the opera in London in 2011.
“For me, there’s a fundamental through line in opera and theater,” said Muhly. “When do people really tell the truth? You see it in Huck Finn when he watches his own funeral. Or Hamlet when you’re hiding behind something to hear what people’s real motives are.
“In opera, there’s this wonderful tradition of disguise and costume,” he said. “You use it to force people to articulate what they really think, either interpersonally or politically or sexually or socially or some complicated combination of all those things.” Internet chat rooms, which allow users to float whatever persona they like into cyberspace, are the ultimate disguise.
Muhly and Lucas based their libretto on a case that emerged in Manchester, England in 2003. A 14-year-old boy wove an entirely fictitious tale on the Internet, casting himself as the victim of an incurable disease and enticing a 16-year-old to help him commit suicide. The younger boy’s story included a host of subsidiary characters, and police investigating the older boy’s assault found themselves in a tangled skein of Internet fiction and teen-aged grandiosity.
“There are lots of cases that sort of inspired this story,” Muhly said. “You see new ones every week, where people are cyber-bullied into suicide or people have long, long relationships with people who didn’t exist. For me, it’s the ultimate operatic story, because you don’t have to suspend disbelief as you have to do in Cosi. If you go online, and they say what you want to hear, it doesn’t matter if they say who they are.”
Now 32, Muhly is one of classical music’s brightest young stars. He has worked with Philip Glass for several years as an all-round musical assistant, and his own music, with its combination of minimalist-inflected lyricism and downtown edge, has found a wide audience. Having been a church choir boy, he writes music that plumbs the depths of Bach polyphony as well as contemporary rock.
Two Boys is the first fruit of a commissioning program that the Met and the Lincoln Center Theater launched in 2006. The idea was to pair composers and librettists and help them bring a project to fruition. Jazz, pop and musical theater composers were part of the mix along with classical composers. The English National Opera’s production of Two Boys in 2011 earned generally positive reviews, but the production team—headed by director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan–has made significant changes since then. The Met cast, which includes British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as the investigating detective Anne Strawson and distinguished Canadian mezzo Judith Forst as her mother, is entirely new. David Robertson conducts.
“I was plucked out of the ether for this project,” said Coote, with a hearty laugh. “Peter Gelb [the Met’s general manager] rang me on my cell as I was walking along in New York a couple of years ago, before [Two Boys] actually happened at ENO. For some reason, he had this feeling that I had to do it. He sent me a score of the original version within an hour. He said, ‘There’s a piece being written about the Internet,’ and my ears immediately pricked up because it’s something I think about a lot, the Internet.”
Two Boys is set in 2001, and Coote’s character, middle-aged British detective Anne Strawson, has little use for the Internet. She doesn’t know how to use a computer and reluctantly uses an ancient cell phone . Coote shares Strawson’s suspicion of the digital world.
“The Internet upsets me. I’m quite a depressing figure at dinner parties, Coote said cheerfully. “I blame everything on the Internet. The positivity that the Internet brings to our lives is immeasurable, but to me I would always talk about ‘this is the fault of the Internet, this is why we’re disconnected, this is why we have no attention span, why our morals are gone.’ I didn’t grow up in school with it. It was something I had to learn.”
Muhly and Lucas rearranged the opera’s scenes slightly for the Met production, but Sher said he made more substantial changes to the staging. The video projections, designed by 59 Productions and ranging from images of words unscrolling on a computer screen to vivid scenes of the physical world, were sharpened up. He brought in choreographer Hofesh Shechter to work with the chorus. But the basic elements of the set–six tall towers that serve as everything from Strawson’s police station to exterior locales–remain unchanged.
“The towers became something you could be inside, you could be outside,” said Sher. “They would be anything we wanted. That was our first step in terms of the production.”
Sher agreed with Muhly that some of opera’s centuries-old conventions work very well for their up-to-the-minute story. Making something dynamic out of people typing away on computers, for example, turned out to be relatively easy.
“It was never much of a problem in a stylized operatic way,” said Sher, “if you were using a computer and staring straight out and somebody else is using a computer and staring straight out. That they’re not looking at each other, that was not much of a problem in opera. Opera is not a naturalistic art form. So it was well suited, in staging terms, when it came to people talking to each other online.”
When the chorus, each member holding a glowing laptop, stands on the darkened stage, light from the computer screens floods their faces. They could be a procession of rapt, candle-bearing acolytes from The Dialogues of the Carmelites.
Muhly and Sher are comfortable working in all kinds of settings. Muhly’s prodigious output includes ballets, film scores and music for theatrical productions as well as opera, songs and purely instrumental ensembles. He’s worked with pop artists including Bjork and Sigur Ros and wrote the score for the acclaimed revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones currently running on Broadway.
Sher is best known as a theater director, though he has been staging opera for nearly a decade. He directed the Adam Guettel musical, The Light in the Piazza, for which Lucas wrote the book, and won a Tony Award for directing Lincoln Center Theater’s 2008 production of South Pacific. Two Boys reunites his South Pacific production team: costume designer Catherine Zuber and lighting designer Donald Holder as well as Yeargan.
“I tend to be less drawn to subject matter than I am to collaborators,” said Sher. “So when Peter [Gelb] called and said it was going to be Nico and Craig and they had this idea, I didn’t need a lot more time to think about it. Craig is as good as you can get when it comes to a book writer. The subject sounded incredibly interesting, and Nico is one of our best young composers.”
For Coote, however, Two Boys is a radical change of pace. Her opera repertoire stretches from Handel to Benjamin Britten and she has sung contemporary pieces on her frequent recital programs. But this is the respected mezzo’s first brush with contemporary opera.
“This is an absolutely massively new experience for me on every level,” Coote said with gusto, obviously exhilarated by the challenge. “The complexity of the music isn’t something I’ve had to deal with, either rhythmically or harmonically. So that’s been a huge learning curve. I’ve been singing for a long time, but I’ve never sung anything like this at all. I feel like my brain is being expanded.”
However enriching, the process can be unsettling.
“Nico is very easy going and very generous,” she said. “But he’s been in all the rehearsals. It’s a bizarre experience to know that the person who actually created this and knows how he wants it to sound is sitting on the other side of a table from you in a grotty little room in the Metropolitan Opera. This is a big growth moment for me. It’s very, very exciting.”
Outside of changing the placement of an early scene, Muhly hasn’t made major changes to the score of Two Boys for its Met premiere.
“There’s maybe one new page of writing,” he said. “It’s more a surgical process. It’s like when you’ve lived in a house for a while. Sometimes just the subtlest changes make the biggest difference. You don’t have to reupholster the furniture; you just have to move it.”
Nonetheless, Muhly values the chance to revisit Two Boys. New operas get no out-of-town tryouts or lengthy preview periods, so composers, librettists and directors can’t easily fix the problems that become obvious only after the opera is up and running.
“This is our second time through,” said Muhly. “It’s an insane luxury. I’m wallowing in luxuriousness.”
Two Boys opens October 21 at the Metropolitan Opera and runs through November 14. metoperafamily.org