By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — “He can do anything with computers” is a line lyrically set in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which had its U.S. premiere Oct. 21 at the Metropolitan Opera. The text says everything about his opera’s time frame and core premise: On the Internet, you can invent and masquerade as anyone you want. You could even be murdered.
The opera is based on a 2001 report of two teenagers in Manchester, England, who met in an online chat room, where imaginary identities are routinely created. The younger boy, Jake (sung by boy soprano Andrew Pulver), eventually was knifed by the elder, Brian (tenor Paul Appleby). A computer-illiterate detective, Anne Strawson (mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, in a breakout role), struggling to believe, let alone understand, is emblematic of a generation gap that cyberspace brings into high relief. (Information on the participating artists and support personnel is here.)
The Vermont-born Muhly, 32, is the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Met. His opera is also the first in the Met/LCT New Works Program, and its subject is a relevant – and probably necessary – first as well. In conversation, Muhly talks so fast that his mouth can hardly keep up with the ideas he wants to express. Librettist Craig Lucas, director Bartlett Sher, and others who worked on the opera are all nearly twice the composer’s age, personifying the narrative’s dilemmas about who is the grownup and how different generations face loneliness.
The work’s 2011 premiere at London’s English National Opera drew what is politely called mixed reviews. David Robertson, dapper and able, conducted a revised version at the Met. At Muhly’s age, it’s natural for a composer to be influenced by the music of those who inspire him. The gift is in his choices. With taste and good degrees in literature and music, Muhly creates sounds of his time and tales of the media-dominated present. His other scores cherry-pick Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Meredith Monk – big bass tones, minimalist motifs, and startling percussion. Two Boys also has the acidic propulsion of John Adams and Law & Order: SVU. Who cares if you listen? Muhly does.
Grim sets by Michael Yeargan fit the grisly story. In place of a pre-show curtain is a cheesy black-and-white security tape, looping the evidence over and over. As the opera begins, the tape is revealed to be a scrim, opening onto an unpleasant set, perhaps like that in Menotti’s The Consul or Peter Maxwell Davies’ Kommilitonen. Some scenes have apartment buildings with satellite dishes. Donald Holder’s gritty gray lighting suits the interrogation scenes between Strawson and Brian; it also fits the concept of a gray area between truth and fiction, dividing the characters by age or imagination. Fluid scene changes, like those in Angels in America, and easily wheeled props, like a desk or a hospital bed, are backed by projections of an exploding world.
Strings of iChat rapidly type out one line after another down the backdrops, with idiomatic spellings, typos, profanity, and abbreviations (How r u, OMG, wassup, totally perv). Muhly’s acute ear conveys characters interrupting one another as in ordinary speech. When the confused, lonely Brian opens his laptop, the scrim falls away, revealing an ecstatically overlapping chorus of kids on laptops – his alternate world, his comfort zone, and his undoing.
Two Boys lies beautifully for voices. These young singers will not have to worry about ruining themselves by middle age. Coote’s steady voice, gentle around the edges, has a more self-effacing mezzo quality than that of Sandra Piques Eddy, who powers assertively through as Jake’s wicked Aunt Fiona. Contemplating Jake’s death, young Pulver muses, “Everyone will say what a beautiful voice I had.” He does. A church scene reflects Muhly’s love for Byrd and Tallis in its references to chants and liturgy.
Like Woody Allen in his film casts, Muhly apparently sticks with his friends. What luck that he likes Jennifer Zetlan, who portrays Rebecca, Jake’s older sister and the adorable inciter in a little red coat (designed by Catherine Zuber). She seems to offer her tone with a graceful gesture. Zetlan usually has a regal presence. In the vast Met, she looks small, but she’s supposed to be a young girl.
The ending is forced, as if the creators tried and tried. If Muhly hasn’t forgotten about it in his rush to compose other things, he may be persuaded to keep working at it. Hope so. “My job,” he says in a YouTube interview, “is to make sure people have a great time at the theater.” A great time? Not yet. Food for thought? Plenty.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory and several publications in Western Massachusetts. She can be seen in the September issue of Inside Southern Berkshire.