I hadn’t heard of Nico Muhly until early last year when I read that he had been commissioned by the Met in New York to write an opera based on a bizarre attempted knife murder in England in 2003. I found a detailed account of the crime in a 2004 Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach . The weird scenario would make a fascinating contemporary opera. I was also glad of the introduction to the Nico Muhly’s music, which I began to explore.
The opera, Two Boys, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, has now been composed and performed at the English National Opera which has co- produced it with the Met. It opened at the London Coliseum on 24 June, in what might well be a trial run for performances in New York said to be scheduled for 2013. In any event, Peter Gelb the General Manager of the Met was there, seated one row behind the composer, literally breathing down his neck.
As I keep saying, it’s very hard to grasp new music at a first, and often only hearing. The effect is multiplied in the opera theatre where text, singing, movement, staging and so on, while essential to the experience, distract attention from the music itelf. This is certainly the case here as the production by Bartlett Sher is fast moving and visually stimulating. I have never seen such an inventive and proficient use of projections and the overall effect is breathtaking.
As related in Vanity Fair and elsewhere, the case on which the libretto is based was the first in which anybody in England had been charged with inciting his own murder. A teenage boy was almost fatally stabbed in a laneway by another boy. The victim had, by assuming various persona in internet chatrooms, convinced an older boy that his murder was required in the interests of national security. This narrative with all it’s bizarre details could be the apotheosis of the cliché truth is stranger than fiction; but it happened.
Opera is famous for incredible plots and amazing coincidences but Two Boys is anchored in fact. It is a work which might be the more easily dismissed as fanciful if it were not. As it seeks to bring the ability of opera to open up and explore experience to a contemporary theme, it should not be seen as a surreal fantasy.
The story is presented as it appears to Anne Strawson, a (fictional) detective sung by Susan Bickley, who investigates the stabbing. At first the crime is inexplicable; but as the investigation develops and she learns more of the ways of the internet and its chat, things become clearer until, as in the original, the common use of an eccentric spelling of the word “maybe” by various chat room inhabitants establishes that they were all invented by the victim as part of his scheme.
The opera follows the facts of the actual case fairly closely; in both the older boy, called Brian in the opera, and sung by tenor Nicky Spence, is 16. The victim, called Jake here, is, I think, younger than the actual victim. He appears first in one of his chat room identities sung by baritone Jonathan McGovern, but as the story develops in his younger and real state sung by treble Joseph Beesly.
The internet itself is a character, partly sung by the chorus murmuring and voicing, and partly in the orchestra with minimalist phrases which I thought were more reminiscent of John Adams than Philip Glass. Mr. Muhly is the first composer to capture the virtual cloud in the same way that Debussy and Britten have captured the sea. The internet will never be the same again. As I am writing, I can hear a ceaseless whir of activity somewhere beyond the modem.
Meanwhile, chatroom ID’s and text appear as projected images with all the speed and urgency of the net itself. Often fully sung words are represented in surtitles by chat language: asl, brb and cu and so, on which made me cringe and resolve, at the time anyway, never to type them again. There was never any meh.
The original events might be explained, at least partly, by the younger boy’s infatuation with the older. The original is followed closely here, down to the instruction given by the victim that his assailant was to say "I love you, bro," as he knifed him. Liebestod in a back alley.
Infatuations like this and the associated sexual games have been the stuff of memoirs and “coming of age” novels for a long time now, and I doubt if there is much new to be said about them. I suppose some relationships go completely off the rails and end violence but this is surely rare. What is peculiar here are the internet and the invention of chat room characters by the instigator/victim; not to speak of the credulity of the older boy.
While Two Boys follows the original story faithfully in these respects, it adds something which changes the story from a true crime story with music into a work with emotional force. I have mentioned that in his true person the victim is sung by an alto. The fictional victim,Jake, is a boy soprano in a church choir. We see him in this role in a scene set in a church in which Brian, the older boy, is a member of the congregation. Some Anglican liturgy is sung and Jake sings a solo piece, all the time staring at Brian. Brian sings “Why is he looking at me”. ( I have no text so quotes might not be right.) The music stands apart from what has been heard so far. It is, I think, the keystone of the work, in the same way the Sunday Morning scene in Peter Grimes, marks the point from which it is impossible to turn back the sky.
Later, the choirboy victim says how he wanted to be remembered after his murder– for beautiful singing. The music in the church scene is not unique, Nico Muhly has written a lot of church and other choral music. And, he was himself an accomplished soloist in an Anglican church choir. At some point, I realised that it wasn’t true crime with ingenious internet music but a moving personal statement.
The high point of my career as a boy soprano was singing Christopher Robin songs to a Methodist Church social evening; quite a different level of achievement from that of a chorister who learns to read music, takes part in innumerable performances of great music and, if a soloist, performs at a level he will never reach again, even if he continues to sing as an adult. There is a combination of childhood innocence with a very high level of accomplishment. Then his voice breaks and it is finished.
I don’t think Two Boys is saying that, in any literal sense, discarded altos are at risk of ingenious suicide plots, but this thread gives the piece an emotional appeal which would be absent if only the detective story were told. It can even be seen as a more general allegory of lost innocence. Apart from the fascinating internet music, it seems to me to be the basis of the musical and emotional structure of the work. And as I said, I haven’t properly heard all the music yet. I know for one thing that there are gongs somewhere which are a tribute to Britten and his use of them in Death in Venice. I missed them completely.
Back to the Coliseum on Wednesday to hear the gongs !