Last night, Bwog’s resident opera enthusiast Alexandra Svokos ran to the Metropolitan Opera to see Two Boys, a new opera by Nico Muhly, CCxJ’03, which had its Met premiere on Monday.
“Oh shit, that’s me,” was my first thought as the curtain opened last night on Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera. The conductor hit the downstroke without giving us a chance to applaud his entrance, and the curtain opened to reveal a troupe of gray wash skinny jean-clad youths. This costume would outfit both the chorus and the dancers, who would go on to be the highlight of the opera: as Muhly duly proved, he can write some gorgeous choral and orchestral compositions.
Nico Muhly is young. Part of an artist’s job is to immortalize her or his contemporary times, and Muhly did just that with our generation in Two Boys. The plot is set in 2001 and was based on a Vanity Fair article about a 16-year-old boy, Brian, who stabbed a 13-year-old, Jake. The opera follows a detective, Anne Strawson as she attempts to figure out why this happened.
We follow the plot in flashbacks as Brian spins the tale leading up to the stabbing. This tale is almost entirely set in chatrooms in the brave new world of the 2001 Internet. We watch Brian chat with strangers and see the lines of text come up on moving projections. The chorus typically represents the people of the Internet, singing strings of words – “parents over my shoulder” “r u there” “i thought i lost u” “stfu” – that represent the babble of communication that webs online.
I dunno if you guys remember, but 2001 was a fucking weird time for the Internet. We had chatrooms where strangers talked to you, in a much more dishonest and illegitimate way than we do now. There was no Facebook or LinkedIn or extensive Google search results to prove that someone was real. There was just a line of text saying “i saw u in algebra 2day” and you had to believe it. Or not. But most people did, because it was such a new thing that we didn’t realize that people are crazy and do messed up shit like fake identities and lie extensively. Do you remember “a/s/l”? Do you remember getting messages from terrifying pseudonyms asking for pics? Do you remember that ppL aCtUalLy mybe usEd 2 tlk Lyk dIs?
It was such a realistic portrayal of what stuff was like that I could only describe it, at intermission, as “trippy”–you’re just not used to seeing your literal self onstage at an opera. I mean it was so jarring that it took me a moment to realize “holy shit, there’s a dude spanking it on a webcam on the stage of the Metropolitan fucking Opera.”
My friend, also in the house, noted that the music seemed secondary to the libretto. I found myself paying more attention to the words than I typically do (unless Lorenzo da Ponte wrote it). But this makes sense: the drama was in words, not in actions. The drama played out on screens of people typing, with you waiting anxiously to see what would come out next. The Met Titles screens, which are on the seat in front of you and show the lines as they are being sung, were written in accurate text talk, so you ended up staring at it because, hello, there were typos and abbrevs and acronyms that are on the page but not in the voices of the singers, who sang out every “lmao” as “laughing my ass off.”
Paul Appleby sang Brian with fervor and appropriate teenage candor and awkwardness. Little Andrew Pulver sang Jake, the 13-year-old, with impressive sound. Alice Coote knocked it out of the damn park in the final act, clearly having saved her voice for a big ass finale. The orchestra played the swells of Muhly’s rolling, musing, anxiety-ridden score carefully and movingly with beautiful crescendos and decrescendos. A strong brass section was appropriately employed at dramatic points in the plot.
Two Boys has been adjusted since its initial premiere in London to work out the kinks–with a living composer, it’s a living work. There are still some things to be worked out, mostly in terms of plot. A tacked on backstory for Strawson wasn’t horribly effective and took away from the quickness and anxiety of the plot. It would have been nicer with more backstory for Jake. He clearly faces that classic loneliness and cyberbullying that we’re used to hearing about nowadays, but those emotions and that story aren’t on the page. We want to understand his actions, and that would be stronger with more characteristics and backgrounding.
Regardless, for the last twenty minutes I found myself frozen with emotion, completely trapped up in the soaring, enchanting music of the final act. The stage, too, was well employed, making wonderful use of the mass of space the Met provides–especially in a dizzying scene of moving set pieces as we get to the point where Jake is stabbed. Muhly really wrote something overwhelmingly, achingly beautiful. It was subtle and complex and rose and fell in exactly the right places. As a Columbia student, I’m ridiculously proud to count Muhly among our alumni.
And holy shit! I can’t reiterate this enough! There was a dude spanking it on a webcam on the stage of the Metropolitan fucking Opera!
Two Boys runs through November 14th. Student tickets are available, y’all.
Nico Muhly artfully looking away from the camera via Chicago Reader