Two Boys: In Focus

Two Boys In Focus


Premiere: English National Opera, London, 2011

The first full-scale opera by young American composer Nico Muhly, Two Boys is the also the first piece to reach the Met stage from the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, a commissioning initiative launched in 2006. Loosely inspired by real events in England in the early 21st century, the opera, with a libretto by playwright Craig Lucas, centers on a police detective investigating the stabbing of one teenage boy by another. Along the way, the detective must navigate the shadowy universe of the Internet in order to unravel the complex web of stories behind a very real crime. Opera composers have long explored the possibilities of telling deeper truths about human nature through narratives utilizing disguises and deceptions. In Two Boys, the Internet is presented as the modern equivalent of that operatic tradition of assumed identities, a world in which participants have the ability to assume a variety of personas, in which social identity is fluid, and where many people willingly engage in being duped. The different spheres in which the opera unfolds—the world of physical human interaction, the internal psychological world of the characters, and the realm of online interaction—are explored through varying musical idioms and narrative techniques. Merging these realms, the story tells of isolated people, desperate for interaction, who, through the new technology of the web, resort to extreme methods to connect with others. Ultimately, Two Boys explores aspects of humanity that are simultaneously new and terrifyingly familiar.

The Creators
Nico Muhly (b. 1981) has composed a wide scope of work for notable institutions and ensembles and has also written for and collaborated with a diverse array of popular and classical performers. His opera Dark Sisters, commissioned by the Gotham Chamber Opera, Music Theatre Group, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, premiered in New York in 2012. Muhly’s compositions include ballet music, orchestral and chamber works, song settings and solo piano pieces, film scores, and sacred and secular choral music. The stage works of American author Craig Lucas (b. 1951) include Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul, and the book for the musical The Light in the Piazza. He has also created screenplays from several of his plays as well as writing the original screenplay for the film Longtime Companion.

The Setting
The opera takes place in an English industrial city in 2001.

The Music
Muhly’s score uses distinct musical colors and languages to characterize the different environments of the drama. In the police station, the vocal lines are primarily lyrical while following cadences of everyday speech. One model for the word-setting in Two Boys, according to the composer, was the style of Benjamin Britten, which is neither strikingly dissonant nor confined to symmetrical melody. There are set arias within this musical realm, including one for Detective Strawson, in which she expresses her bewilderment at the incorporeal world of the Internet while younger people revel in its allure. The Internet itself—an important “location” for much of the opera—is characterized by a noticeably different musical atmosphere. But instead of the electronic sounds that might have been expected, Muhly opts for a purely acoustic approach, creating six choral scenes full of shimmering harmonies and layered lines that represent the innumerable, simultaneous conversations of the web. The composer’s interest in the flexibility of choral music draws on a wide variety of sources: Anglican liturgical traditions (most clearly apparent in the church scene), 16th- and 17th-century madrigals of Byrd and Tallis, the cantus firmus technique, and the vocal canon systems of overlapping patterns used by such contemporary American composers as Meredith Monk and Steve Reich. All of these influences are brought to bear in Two Boys’ vibrant and rhythmically energized choral interludes. These depictions of Internet “chatter” reflect and interact with the three-dimensional life of the characters, which is represented by more traditionally lyric methods: a sparing but dramatically effective use of arias alternating with conversational moments punctuated by soaring vocal lines. The different levels of musical expression sometimes intrude on each other abruptly, as they do in modern life, while at other times there are extended musical transformations from one “world” into the other. Dimensional shifts throughout the score are also effected by the orchestra. The instrumental writing in the opera is based in tonality and, like the vocal writing, embodies a wide spectrum of musical influences. These include Renaissance polyphony, 20th-century American Minimalism, and even Indonesian gamelan music (which also informed the evanescent finale of Britten’s late operatic masterpiece Death in Venice, another inspiration for this score).

Two Boys at the Met
This production of Two Boys marks the opera’s U.S. premiere. After a series of workshops in New York and London, it received its world premiere in June 2011 at English National Opera, in a co-production with the Met and directed by Bartlett Sher. Two Boys comes to the Met in a revised version following a final workshop in fall 2012.

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