Nico Muhly, CCxJ’03 (that’s Columbia-Juilliard Exchange), has worked with Philip Glass, Björk, and Grizzly Bear, among countless others. On October 21, Two Boys, an opera Muhly composed, will have its Metropolitan Opera premiere. Bwog’s resident opera enthusiast Alexandra Svokos was too starstruck to give him a high-five for Veckatimest.
Nico Muhly, CCxJ’03, unlike some other alums, still really cares for his alma mater. When I reached out for an interview, I was surprised just to get an offer for a phone interview. Upon hearing I was from a Columbia, however, Muhly allegedly insisted on an in-person interview and found time during his lunch break from rehearsals at the Met.
In an empty rehearsal room in the bowels of this fabulous institution, Muhly pulls over a chair for me and takes a seat at a piano, where he immediately starts plunking chords. From Sam, the Met’s Press Manager, Muhly requests a “coffee and Iestyn”–Davies, world-famous countertenor, who did eventually stop in to say hello, in green velvet pants on his own break from rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Muhly asks where I’m living. When I tell him Woodbridge, he tells me about a massive party his friends threw there during their last weeks, incurring a large damages cost. Muhly himself lived in Wallach 5–before it was an LLC. In fact, he’s still close with his Wallach suitemates–they meet up and keep in touch.
Though his Wallach relationships have remained the same, a ton has changed for Muhly since he graduated. On October 21, Two Boys, an opera he composed, will have its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. This is an incredible accomplishment, and especially for someone so young.
The Met is known for keeping things, well, classical–it was a big deal last year when they premiered Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, which was written in the 1830s. But under General Manager Peter Gelb, the institution has been taking more risks. Producing an opera by a 32-year-old that largely takes place online definitely falls under that category.
I ask Muhly if it feels crazy that so much has happened in the last decade. “It feels a little crazy,” he admits, “today is a good example–having that many people in a room doing this weird thing that I wrote in my apartment? [Laughs] It’s like you write this little thing and all of a sudden there are 80 people doing your bidding. But at the same time, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t even had time to reflect. I just keep moving–but that’s one of the things being in New York is about–it’s shark-like, you just force yourself to keep going.”
The not-so-changing world of te interwebz
Two Boys is essentially a murder mystery. We follow Detective Anne Strawson, sung by Alice Coote, as she tries to uncover why one teenage boy was killed by another, sung by Paul Appleby (don’t worry–I urged Muhly not to give away the ending). It is set in 2001, when Muhly was still at Columbia.
“When I was in high school,” Muhly explains, “I knew 2 people who had email. In 11th and 12th grades, AOL Instant Messenger started becoming a thing… When I came to Columbia, you were issued an email address on the first day of school, you had to use Pine–which I assume you don’t use anymore–very few people had laptops, people had desktop computers. There was no Facebook and people were just getting cell phones. It’s crazy to think about, but it was a whole different technological environment.
‘This piece is set in that time when there was still that feeling of a sexual and political allure of being able to lie on the internet.” He goes on to say that although people are more savvy now than they were then, the environment of deception has not changed at all–he references a recent suicide and the suicide of Tyler Clementi, which were both due to online actions, as well as Manti Te’o‘s fake girlfriend. “It’s like we’ve gotten smarter, and yet not,” Muhly says.
Moreover, though, this theme of deception and hidden identities has been seen since the beginning of opera–“and since the beginning of drama, really,” Muhly prods.
“The thing with drama is: when can you hear what people really think? You see that in Huck Finn–when he hides from the funeral–and in Hamlet–when they hide behind things to hear people. Either you hide and you listen or you put on a disguise and you listen or you put on a disguise and you say stuff to see what will happen. It really hasn’t changed in 500 years. Even in the Greek! It’s always: Zeus appears in the guise of a swan. You play with gender, species, in order to get something political or sexual–or usually both. Especially in the Greek mythology, it’s always both. In Teutonic mythology it’s the same thing.”
At the Met, it is highly unusual for musicians to rehearse with the composer present. In fact, of the 17 composers whose work is being presented this season, Muhly is the only living one.
“I do a couple things to make it less scary,” Muhly tells me. “For instance, I almost never have my score open. My rule is: if I didn’t know they made a mistake, then they didn’t make a mistake. That’s my philosophy.” He goes on to explain that singers have to memorize, learn, and internalize music as a character–they’re interpreting the music in character. “So if they make a mistake, if they do something that’s not what I wrote, but they’ve learnt it that way, it’s probably more right than what I did.”
‘…My music doesn’t sound like it has to be obsessively, pointillistically correct about everything–there a couple places where it does, and I’m completely neurotic about those–but in others it’s like ‘whatever!’ If you set up the environment correctly, people can be loose.”
Muhly goes on that he tries not to be at rehearsal all the time, maybe just 80% of it. For the other 20%, he’s typically in another room reading. “I don’t want to be like ‘Tiger Mom.’ I want to be like ‘Fun Uncle.'”
Unhappily, our interview time is up. With my final question, I ask Muhly if the Core has influenced him.
“Ha! The Core!” Muhly delights. “The specific things in the Core obviously have, in the obvious ways that happens. But for me, as a composer, the rigor of that thing is what I try to make every other musician that I work with do–which is know everything. Or, if you can’t know everything–which of course no one can–artificially draw this insane itinerary through everything, and then at least you’ll have gotten to the other side and you can go back and pick what you like.
‘The Core is so great in that way: it’s like thisthisthisthisthisthis and then: figure it out. With music, you know all these different things, and it’s probably a crabwise path, but then: you force yourself to have this broad thing that you wouldn’t have if someone hadn’t made you, which is great.
So I love the Core. Live for the Core.”