Last week, someone I’ve never met taught me how to make a gif. I needed to know how so I could enter a competition on Twitter, the prize for which was two tickets to Nico Muhly’s new opera ‘Two Boys’ at ENO. Having failed to win the competition, I bought tickets for Wednesday’s performance instead, and went along with two friends. I know one of them from an opera website, and met the other via a messageboard.
So, when Muhly talks about the ‘generation that grew up with the internet’ I know what he means. I’m a few years older than he is, though, so I was a young adult rather than a teenager when it began to transform our lives. Like many people my age, I had an embarrassing initial skepticism when it came to the ‘information superhighway’. With all the confidence of the man who turned down the Beatles, I dismissed it as a fad.
Now, of course, I’m a convert. A massive convert- to the extent that I have to yank the plug out of the router when I have work to do. I spend a vast amount of time online. I’ve made many, many friends via messageboards and social networks- and they’re not just words on a screen. I’ve been on holidays with friends I’ve made in cyberspace; some of them were at my sister’s wedding. And when my dad was dying- a time much on my mind at the moment, as it would have been his 75th birthday yesterday- the net was a vital lifeline. For the last three months of dad’s life, my sister and I de-camped to my parents’ house in rural Norfolk, to help with his care. Without a computer, it would have been much harder to feel connected to my life in London; without a computer, the long nights staying awake to watch at dad’s bedside would have been very lonely indeed.
I mention all this because the internet gets a bad rap, both in the press and in the arts. We’re all familiar with the tenuous, frothing ‘CHILD WITH FACEBOOK ACCOUNT GETS MURDERED’ style of news story. And when people started dramatising the worldwide web- in films such as Hackers and The Net, or plays such as Closer, the narrative was always the same. The online world was dark, scary. People used it to keep track on you, or to pretend to be someone else. Trust no-one, was the message; the cake is a lie.
My initial problem with ‘Two Boys’, pretty much the first opera to engage with a phenomenon which has been dominant in our lives for the best part of two decades, is that it followed this narrative, the idea that as soon as we type an address into a browser we are putting ourselves at risk. The plot, based on a true story, hinges on assumed/false identity; there are whole choral sections based on the premise that Everyone On The Internet Is There To Have Weird Sex. Well, yes, there’s a lot of sex, weird and otherwise, on the net. But there’s a lot of other stuff, too. It’s not just the place some people go when they want to get off- it’s where everyone goes to do everything. In fact, the opera eventually does embrace this idea, although perhaps not as much as it should.
Thus, the plot strand in ‘Two Boys’ which bugged me the most was the journey of Susan Bickley’s character, the CIO of an attempted murder case in which a 16 year old boy has stabbed a younger friend. She starts from a position of near-total innocence- the fact that online people can pretend to be somebody else, or that cyberspace can be a venue for bullying, or that young people are not only sexualized but fluent in the language and the darker corners of sexuality, seems to be news to her, and shocking news, at that. Surely, a senior police officer would be more savvy? The twist that the plot takes at the end really seems to take a hell of a long time to occur to her; I wish I’d come to the piece not knowing it, so I could gauge how much of a surprise it was. I think it was a major misstep in ENO’s publicity not to keep it under wraps, and I’d love to know what it would be like to work it out for oneself.
As far as Craig Lucas’ libretto is concerned, that’s my only gripe. Some of the reviews have been quite snippy about his contribution, but I thought that the storytelling and the release of information were beautifully timed, and some of the exchanges- particularly the early chatroom conversations between central character Brian and his online friend Rebecca- were genuinely dramatically riveting in a way operatic dialogues tend not to be. There’s no sitting back and letting the experience wash over you- you have to be alert, to concentrate, and the work is all the better for it. That, I think, is Lucas’ achievement, because Muhly’s music is more problematic.
The opening is a wonderful nod to some of the opera’s influences- an ominous ostinato in the strings which sounds exactly, but exactly, like the opening title music of a Hollywood thriller. It’s almost impossible to hear it without imagining a camera sweeping around a police station, names of the stars appearing in the bottom right of the screen, before settling on a desk where, say, Sigourney Weaver is poring over some case files. It’s a terrific start. But Muhly’s musical language seems limited, its rhythm unvarying. There has been much talk of how his composition is ‘post minimalist’ but it sounds pretty much like minimalism to me. More worryingly, it lacks the energy, the forward motion of the best minimalist composers; the opera feels as if every page is headed ‘andante, mf’. This musical lethargy has an unfortunate effect on the word-setting- there’s nothing conversational, no parlando. Even simple conversational exchanges seem to have every syllable set to minims rather than quavers, so that the dramatic tension indicated by Lucas’ libretto is dissipated. There’s a lack of theatricality, of dramatic set pieces arising from, rather than set to, music. These aren’t incompatible with the minimalist language- put it this way, when John Adams has Mme Mao enter the stage, he knows he has to do something huge. Conversely, the dramatic climax of Muhly’s opera- the stabbing on which the whole evening hangs- utterly lacks musical tension or any kind of sense of climax. It’s left entirely to the performers to generate the necessary shock which, since both of Muhly’s two protagonists are excellent singing actors, they do. But I bet they wish they had the music to help them. When a story this disturbing reaches its conclusion, the last thing you want of the music is that it be unobtrusive.
This is not to say, however, that as a musician Muhly isn’t richly gifted and, by his lights, inventive. Purely as music the score is constantly interesting, and he knows how to write for singers, particularly choral singers. The closest the evening comes to the kind of music-drama swagger one would expect from a composer with Muhly’s wunderkind status is in the work of the chorus, portraying the internet itself. The moment Brian opens his laptop to unleash a sussuration of voices, all seeking someone to talk to, is genuinely thrilling, hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff. The concertato writing, when the various people Brian has met online (none of them who they seem to be) is also richly satisfying musically and dramatically. And, just at times, the dramatic situation rouses Muhly’s music out of its inertia into something more vital, most notably in the last exchange between Brian and Rebecca, or the scene where Brian receives the detailed instructions which lead to the stabbing. The final chorus, too, notable in its ambiguity and its refusal to offer pat answers, is as intriguing and serious of intent and disturbing as the evening deserves.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Muhly- he is palpably a major, serious talent, to be cherished and to be nurtured. But ‘Two Boys’ isn’t quite there yet, and may need revisiting before it’s unleashed at the Met (the running time should definitely be reduced: this is a 90 minute opera currently stretching to 120, and boasting an utterly superfluous interval). Despite my caveats about this work, I’d still buy a ticket for anything with Muhly’s name on it.
The production, by Bartlett Sher, is sensational- scenes flow seamlessly into each other, the versatile, functional set and brilliantly-executed video projections create the world of the opera, both online and off, with glittering simplicity. Sher has also assembled a fine cast of singing-actors, too. Bickley is a known quantity, of course, and is as good as you’d expect in the elusive, underdrawn character of the cop. Despite some neat scenes with her mother, aimed at sketching out Anne’s backstory and inner life, you never really get a sense of who this woman is. She’s at her best in the scenes interrogating Nicky Spence’s Brian, as opposed to the rather generalized arias in which she expresses confusion and concern. Spence’s performance is terrific, giving life to a character who is difficult to understand. Brian’s innocence can be ascribed, I suppose, to his youth (although he seems a little too obedient to anyone who asks him to wap his cock out on webcam, whether it’s potential girlfriend or scary CIA supervillain) but his gullibility matches that of Bickley’s character at times. Vocally and dramatically Spence rises to the challenge of a young man on the edge, and his lyric tenor easily encompasses vocal writing that sometimes calls for a certain amount of heldenheft. And I can’t really tell you why without spoilering, but Joseph Beesley, as the other boy of the opera’s title, is extraordinary both as singer and actor. Everyone, though, in this large cast does a grand job. I’ve not seen a more universally convincingly acted opera production in a long time.
Disgracefully, until last year, I had never seen the premiere run of a new opera. Now I’ve seen three, and of those three ‘Two Boys’ is easily the most interesting and the work I’d most happily return to. ‘Prima Donna’ we can regretfully discount. But the comparison with ‘Anna Nicole’ is an interesting one. Turnage’s music has all the canny theatricality that Muhly’s lacks; but ‘Anna Nicole’ doesn’t ask any questions; it reminds us, none too subtly, of things we already know. ‘Two Boys’ is more elusive, more serious-minded, more ambiguous- and as a result we care much more about its damaged central characters, however loosely sketched, than we do about the tragic Ms. Smith. Lucas, Muhly, Sher and their singers have created a flawed but important work, a work which tries and almost succeeds in addressing pressing contemporary concerns, holding an operatic mirror up to society in a way which doesn’t happen nearly enough. For that, they should be commended, and for that, ‘Two Boys’ demands to be seen.