By proudly inhabiting a distinctly un-‘operatic’ genre – that of crime drama – Nico Muhly’s Two Boys expands the possibilities of operatic narrative, while creatively reimagining the role that music plays within the cross-disciplinary dynamic of opera. (And producing a rather gorgeous work at the same time).
Despite not selling out every night, despite not being quite so unusual with respect to its venue’s usual programming, the premiere of Nico Muhly‘s first opera – Two Boys – seemed just as much of an event as the other big new opera premiere of the year, Anna Nicole. While Turnage’s piece made national headlines for its seemingly provocative subject matter and equally audacious treatment, Muhly’s piece has made its waves in other circles, primarily on the back of the huge cult of personality that’s been built up around the composer. While Anna Nicole‘s run-up coverage revolved largely around the work’s central character, most of Two Boys‘s coverage has clung closely to the composer and his own relationship to his subject, as a key example of an artistic personality picked up by an online generation.
Muhly’s own recent story has been a very telling one, in terms of the way he relates to the press and his audience. It might seem like the kind of stature that he carries as a personality, which is something that I believe all composers should try to develop, stems largely from his connection with pop music and the requisite ‘image management’ which accompanies that world. His links with pop have also meant that the press seem a lot more comfortable with allocating him interview space, in comparison to other composers who risk seeming totally esoteric to a mass readership, lacking any kind of wider cultural touchstones. This makes him pretty much unique within that tier of ‘proper’ composers receiving regular commissions from heavyweight, international institutions and ensembles.
All this has meant that the piece has garnered a fair amount of hype, and I certainly hope (and imagine it could be reasonably expected) that this kind of media presence and image has managed to bring a new crowd into the Coliseum. The production was an event, then, and while it might not seem to be as a spectacular an event as the Turnage, to my mind it was more audacious, more important, and – perhaps for these reasons – more successful. It was also treated in a far more guarded fashion by the critics, and so will probably be remembered in a more ambivalent fashion, but this is just because the peculiarities of the work were particularly pronounced.
Curse of the ‘Operatic’
I postulated, with reference to Anna Nicole, on the dangers of expounding upon how ‘operatic’ the subject of that opera was. ‘Anna Nicole Smith’s story works so well as an opera because she had such an operatic life’ – or something along those lines. In particular, it was believed that her story could easily refer back to the tragic opera heroines of the repertoire. While there are a fair few modern operas that, in their own ways, react against this tendency, there is still an overriding consensus on what sorts of subject are fitting for opera – or are inherently ‘operatic’. The problem with this concept is that the accepted categories are far far too small, and have simply evolved from a familiarity with the kind of fashionable storylines that were common in past centuries, when the idea of freedom and creativity in any art – we must remember – was a much more complex one.
What results is that those types of storyline considered ‘operatic’ amount to the equivalent of three or four quite specific subgenres – the equivalent in film, perhaps, of ‘buddy comedy’, ‘road trip coming-of-age movie’ or ‘fantasy epic’. Muhly’s opera, however, comfortably and confidently inhabits a genre which must have little to no precedent in opera – that of the crime drama. It borrows massively from the kind of modern TV serials which represent this genre in its most established and codified form, including a number of expressly filmic narrative effects (not least the final ‘reveal’ with its montaged recollections, stacked like a multimedia library of evidence). Two Boys is therefore an example of a piece that explicitly borrows from a very modern and very familiar narrative model, which nevertheless has yet to be explored by the medium of opera, and has definitely not yet earned its ‘operatic’ stripes.
The ‘crime drama’ trope constitutes a fundamentally different approach to narrative than most opera employs. I think it is this unusual generic source which is the opera’s key peculiarity, and which ended up dividing the critics, especially those who bemoaned a lack of ‘drama’. Because Two Boys is more than just a tense, cerebral crime drama; it goes further because the crime in question has already been committed, and within an unseen, background realm into which the protagonist – whose perspective we follow – never truly penetrates. Comparisons with Britten’s Turn of the Screw, which Muhly himself has made, are endlessly illuminating. As with that work, the investigating protagonist – in this case the detective Anne Strawson – is faced with horrific and unknowable events which are veiled even from the view, and beyond the earshot, of the audience themselves. Unlike Turn of the Screw though, the drama has already taken place, the damage is already done, and all hope has been long buried; the events are even more distant, even more unreachable, to the extent that the Governess-equivalent never feels like she has any kind of grasp on the situation. Though she strives, she is doubly helpless – removed from the event by both time and plane of reality. This is almost the polar opposite to the usual ‘operatic’ dynamic of clear conflicts and exposed emotions. It does not, however, mean that it couldn’t be a fantastic narrative mode for opera to adopt.
Muhly’s musical language is perfect for this kind of story. His gorgeous, opaque minimalism washes along while the voices skim its surface, skating a vast morasse of unknowable wonder and possibility, which comes to easily represent the internet – especially to the clueless ‘pre-net’ detective. The manipulative child-hacker’s avatars rear up to the surface of this dark flow without disturbing it – blank-faced, projecting their identities onto its smooth contours. Most importantly, for an opera addressing such a violent event, there is an eerie lack of musical ‘violence’. The incredible choral moments are the only occasions at which the surface is broken and, for a few minutes, we can peer inside to glimpse the endless mystery within. It radiates out scrambled and random, but beautiful in its vast intimations, and then the chasm closes again and we’re left with the blankness.
In this way, Muhly and his librettist – Craig Lucas – conspire to construct a whole new metaphorical relationship between the music and the subject matter, and one which is far more pertinent to the true nature of music than many of the other paradigms that have been suggested over the centuries. The orchestral flow comes to symbolise the internet’s flow of data – amoral, uncaring, and infinitely malleable – which lacks meaning until it is loaded with the identities projected by its users.
The old accepted ontology of music as a material within opera needs to be questioned. The idea that music’s role is essentially that of some sort of emotional subtext, or that it is similarly complicit with the ‘interior’ realm of the drama, should in no way be self-evident. There needs to be more problematising of this role along the lines of modern photographers and film-makers who problematise the camera’s ‘gaze’, or novelists who in turn cast doubt on the reliability of the narrative voice.
Two Boys simultaneously puts forward a fascinating alternative paradigm for operatic music, whilst applying it to a libretto that perfectly utilises this kind of paradigm in both subject matter and narrative structure. Muhly and Lucas are positing a model for a new kind of genre opera (and one which clearly acknowledges Turn of the Screw as an important prototype). The staging and design collude with this vision as well; the grey monoliths of set are blank facades onto which the flow of information and meaning can be literally projected, only very occasionally allowing those shades within – cradling their firefly laptop screens – be glimpsed through the gauze.
The mighty blankness explored throughout the work can also be linked to the absolute opacity of the motives for the younger boy Jake’s actions – and, in fact, for the behaviour of the entire cast (real and virtual) excepting only the detective and her mother. To allow arias to penetrate through this opacity (this ‘lack of character development’) would jeopardise the totality of this effect, and the rendering of the entire piece as metaphor for the internet as ultimately unknowable space. The enormity of the internet’s presence onstage – and it is felt palpably as a kind of fat ghost at whose feet the singers scamper – not only maintains a sense of horror at the events, and moreover of horror at the apparent moral vacuity of their context, but also forces us to admit how little we can really know about human nature.
One question then, with regard to the opera’s most consistent criticisms, is: should the detective have had at least one aria to differentiate herself from the unknowable online generations, along the lines of the Governess’s ‘Lost in my labyrinth’? To which the answer is probably yes, although to set it up as a standalone moment of a new vocal mode within an otherwise homogenous approach might have seemed too risky. I think the second act could have used another set piece along those lines, however; the pace became a little too slick as the set roamed around at a filmic pace, and the choral moments remained the only big structural marker points.
The other question might be: were the dramatic flashback moments, especially the final re-enactment of the ‘true’ death circumstances, played out on the right level? I think it was right that, up until the final revelation, all of the replayed events and enacted dialogue carried with them an air of strangeness, of falseness, of not making human sense and of remaining a little alienating. It was important to maintain the detective’s sense of incredulity throughout.
To this end, I would have liked the final death scene – which was interestingly set without accompaniment – to have been a little more pronounced, in one or the other direction – tragic or bathetic. As a climax, it didn’t quite commit enough either way, and therefore wasn’t consequential enough to have the effect that it needed. Even leaving a much longer silence after the act itself might have satisfied me to a degree. Perhaps it should have been spoken, in the manner of a number of Britten’s structural climaxes. As the only respite from the orchestral flow – the only ‘offline’ moment – its place is absolutely pivotal one, and it needed all the signposting it could get.
The final chorus too, I thought, left a teensy bit to be desired. I wanted it to step a little further into the strangeness which marked the web’s presence in this production. In fitting with the overall tone of the work, decidedly doomed and overshadowed by the unknown, it could have been more of a statement of ambiguous awe at this seductive yet unmanageable force, and less a kind of touching, humanity-restoring finale. The events of the opera are too strange, terrible and unstoppable for the final sentiments to be one of real reconciliation, and I think Muhly could have edged a little further into extremity, in order to illustrate a real, unnerved awe at what was in reality a demonstration of this kind of capacity for extreme behaviour in humankind.
All in all though, the work was very cohesive and powerful as a new operatic statement. It was also a pleasure to hear Muhly unleash his musical language on a nice big orchestra for once, and the results were very often gorgeous. Perhaps ENO wasn’t quite the right venue for this work, and with these new approaches to ‘operatic’ writing, new contexts should be found which don’t place such expectations on the same clichéd ‘operatic’ tropes. At the same time though, the high-tech stage design with the wash of projected information guaranteed that the complex storyline was at all times clearly understood.
I hope that Two Boys will eventually help encourage a more adventurous approach to the choice of topic, genre and narrative style utilised in new opera. In this way, it can help push the kinds of music and the kinds of theatre that composers and practitioners explore into more creative domains, beyond convention and beyond the limits of what is considered traditionally ‘operatic’.