The following is an interview by Marc Yearsley on Gothamist November 9, 2013:
Nico Muhly is a graduate of Columbia and Juillard, and he has worked with Phillip Glass, Björk, and Grizzly Bear, to name a few. His opera Two Boys tells the story of an online relationship between two young boys and the circumstances surrounding an ensuing murder. It premiered at the English National Opera in June 2011, opened at the Metropolitan Opera on October 21st, 2013, and is now ending its run on November the 14th. He chatted with us via email initially, then expounded further on the phone.
I have seen a handful of operas —Carmen, The Tales of Hoffman, Phillip Glass’ Kepler (which was crazy), and also Anna Nicole. I’m not unfamiliar with opera, but it also isn’t effortless for me. What do you think is the role of opera contemporarily? As a form, how do you think it fits in to the cultural landscape? How important do you think is it to have operas with modern themes?
These are really good questions and they are very big questions. Fortunately, I can answer very personally about all of them. I love going to the opera: just as a piece of theater, it’s a miraculous thing to hear all these voices and the orchestra and the machinery of the set and all of that. I have no idea what “the cultural landscape” is, but it sounds terrifying. Is it like that thing that exists outside of the house in Beetlejuice with the sand worms?
Did you feel any pressure that your opera was pushed to grab a wide audience? Or that the stakes were elevated because of the high-profile struggles of the City Opera?
No. And I want to be really emphatic about this: no. Opera is a very slow moving ship. I don’t know when Mark-Anthony was commissioned to do Anna Nicole, but this piece was commissioned from me in 2007. City Opera and the Met have entirely different metabolic processes; the Met is thinking about 2019-2020-2021 now—there is a very ugly misconception that there is some craven think-tank sitting in the back of the opera house being like “How do we LURE young people in?”; it’s like some grotesque Hänsel & Gretel situation. The super ugly element of it for me is when people ask me questions implying that I wrote the piece thinking about getting a different kind of audience. That’s a terrible accusation for me, and one that feels like a result of disingenuous press-think. If you follow the money trail, I think you’ll find that most people in the press who carp on about the aging of the audience and this weird demographic ballet are straight married to “arts consultants” who get paid U.S. American Dollars to swoop in and tell organizations how to fix their demographic problems. It’s a mob shake-down by another name.
An interesting area to me is what people are calling digital duality. This idea that our online world and offline world are totally separated. Certain scholars are working to combat that notion, embracing a more holistic view, where online and offline life converge and cross and intersect seamlessly—the idea being that you can’t just “hide” online, or that you are either online inside or offline outside. Where do you sit on that? What Two Boys does very specifically is address a case where a “harmless” online flirtation boils over the pot, and you end up with a real-life scalding burn. A lot of online scams are arguably victimless, like cancer hoaxers who are just in it for sympathy, which is technically free. Other hoaxes, like the Manti Te’o thing, are emotionally involved and then get exposed when it gets too complicated to maintain the lie. The world that Two Boys inhabits, also, is one before we had mobile phones with the internet on, so the idea is that you have to sort of address yourself to this oracle in the house to plug in. In that sense it’s dated, but deliberately so…
I see many thematic similarities between Anna Nicole and Two Boys, in that Anna Nicole Smith kind of developed during this early stage of the internet and its explosion as an information vessel. In many ways, she lived separate lives, the one on television/online and the one in private. At a certain point those were indistinguishable and she merged into some kind of weird extra-human american invention. So I saw Anna Nicole in London. I like Mark-Anthony’s music so much. I liked the production. I don’t necessarily buy the form of humor that assumes that America is this giant trashy glitzy fake-festival; a lot of your country-ass cousins in the north of England fucked up too. And also, I followed the last days of Anna Nicole really closely, and it was legitimately tragic, I thought, not campy tragic. I think Mark-Anthony’s score allowed for both interpretations, which is great, but I couldn’t quite shake, at least in London, the sense that the audience was thinking something more along the lines of “she had it coming for being so trashy.” As you point out, the intersection between public and private with her was blurred, in a really beautiful (at first) and then ultimately ugly way. I thought the music really “got” the nuance of that, but I thought the production chose to focus on the ugliness, vis-à-vis those cameras on the heads? But I liked it. I really love Mark-Anthony.
You noted how you couldn’t really shake the feeling of uncertainty about where the jokes are coming from, whose expense they were at, and how complicit we were in it… Yeah. Again, this shouldn’t reflect on the creators really, but it’s just complicated. Because when you make a piece of art whose job it is essentially to call attention to the difficult and tragic life of a woman, and especially not a woman who comes from a lot of money nor is particularly well educated, you find yourself having to make some kind of unfortunate decisions about what is funny about that. Do you know what I mean? I would say that I think it is amazing that it got made, because opera is miraculous no matter how you slice it. I wonder if in a different production there was a way to make you feel for her a little more in the first act. But whatever—this is also so nitpicky.
The way that I rationalized that was, at the beginning there is that “I want to blow…I want to blow…I want to blow you all a kiss” line that gets a big laugh. And then she says it again at the end… And there’s no laugh. And what the opera does is then you feel bad for having been complicit in this mockery. And quite correctly—you should question. Anyway, it’s complicated…and it’s extra complicated because she’s not a woman of means.
What were you thinking of and concerned with regarding Two Boys and something like achieving that kind of tonal balance—especially here when you’re talking about technology and youth culture, which can be delicate… I’ve found that the less you worry about how things are gonna specifically land, the better they will land. There’s a way that you can over think these things and it will end up feeling deliberate in a way that will take away from the potential emotional power of the piece. So I tried very hard to avoid ever saying that there’s a moral of the story and Craig [Lucas] the librettist was very good at keeping everything afloat and vague about what exactly it is that we’re saying. And I think that’s what you want in an opera. You don’t want to make it too clear. It’s not a fable. It’s a kind of structure through which more questions are asked.
With Two Boys, because it’s not on film, there’s gap in terms of presentation—it isn’t straight representation. What technology did you look to in order to aestheticize it in terms of the production? Well, this is not necessarily something of which I am the author. I wrote the music from which everything else comes. The designers I worked with—the set designer and the video team—there’s a very long and in-depth article in The Atlantic by Robinson Meyer which might answer more specifically than even I can. But we wanted it to be rooted in two different systems of online communication. One is very literal where it’s like you see people chatting with each other so they had to design a very simple old-fashioned chat interface—just an avatar and a name. But the second level of it is this kind of larger and more freeform poetic discourse where you have multiple people talking to each other at the same time and you get this sense of infinite numbers of voices. So that’s the less abstract—more systems of grids, meshwork, vague architectures. But do check out Rob’s piece. It’s very, very thorough. And he spoke with all of the designers as well, so they are much more eloquent about their own work than I could be.
For someone who doesn’t know the intricacies of the pre-production or development or creation of opera, what considerations go into what you do when you’re composing the music for the story—of which you kind of have the loose framework for your idea—and how does that play out? I think it’s hard for a lot of people to even conceptualize “Well, I have this idea and I am going to express it in music, and the other parts will follow at a later time with the right people involved…” Well, that’s a very good question and I’ll rephrase the question for you, which is essentially: how much of the work is done by the score versus how much of the work is done by the libretto versus how much of the work is done by the acting versus the production. And that’s a very complicated question. What I always like to think about opera is that the music needs to be the thing that triggers everything else. So the score should contain, if not fully formed elements of the entire emotional and dramatic content of the piece, it should contain clues about how to realize it.
A good example is this: if someone is singing and saying just saying practical stuff like “I get up, I go to school,” and there’s a little detail in the orchestra, a little shimmer, that shimmer tells the director and the cue indicates to the director “Oh, okay, this is a clue.” Something is being deployed here. And because of that the director knows that he can tell the actors to mark it or ignore it. So that can become a decision. And he can say to the designer “Well, I think in this scene we need to see more of the faces,” so there’s lighting changes. Or he can say “We need to keep this room really neutral so that we’re really paying attention to this detail.” So, it starts with the score, but the score doesn’t have to do everything. The score can just give a little question mark and that can turn into a much bigger idea.
The complexity is that in a lot of cases, the director is the interpreter of the work and the work is the score. And when you’re dealing with older operas and when the composer is dead, it becomes the directors show in a slightly more concrete way. Whereas when you’re alive—so I knew that I was working with a really smart director Bartlett Sher, and I also knew that also he would react best if I talked him through the score halfway. Basically, I didn’t want to sit down and do a lecture of how very, very clever I am. But I also wanted be like “Here are the kinds of things I do occasionally that give clues or that create texture or whatever.”
Are there particular sounds that you tried to integrate into the score that you associate with the internet or modern technology in general? I made a decision very quickly in the process to not use any electronic instruments or sounds and to do the whole thing with the orchestra. So, that becomes a kind of complicated challenge. And what that translated to was that I had to be very smart about when to use which instruments and when to focus on certain sounds and not others. You’ll see when you hear it—the chorus always sings in a really specific way where there’s a chord and they’re all given the notes to sing but the text that they say is all either improvised or a choose-your-own adventure type from a list of like 50 possible things, and each individual person in the chorus does it at a different speed. So what you’re left with is a kind of lambent shimmer rather than this is a chorus of talented people singing about selling eggs, or whatever. So those things are poetic simulations of electronic music but made entirely acoustically.
And they’re all for a little bit of randomness and unpredictability that isn’t truly present in electronic music…. Right. They’re all for randomness and unpredictability in the same way that, like, sparkling water is random. It’s obviously water but there’s this element of movement inside this substance.
This is a broader question, but, film and particularly television, and that type of storytelling, have such a broad reach. I’m wondering how ideally you think opera fits in and what place you would like it to have in a larger setting? I wish I had a better answer for you. The good news about my life is that I actually don’t have to worry about that too much. I just have to write the thing. It’s hard because it’s something—I’m not sure that it’s the job of people who make the thing to worry about how it fits into what we think people want. I think it’s good to worry about it at the extremes—like if for some reason no one ever liked a single thing you’ve ever made ever in any context, that’s worth worrying about. But opera is such a bizarre, herculean process.
I’ll say a couple things. I have a lot of friends come to this as their first opera. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be anyone’s last. I’ve had the luxury of very longtime opera goers being very positive about this. And they go to the opera like four nights a week. And I’ve also had like total first-timers. I had someone who had never been to New York before, which is amazing. So, I feel like it’s less about “How is this genre of making art going to fit into culture or whatever,” and more like “Are people making good work?” And if the work is good, I think it’ll be communicative and attractive. I hope.
Opera, perhaps even to audiences in the historical past, has always been kind of crazy and different and unique and complicated. Opera is weird and I don’t get it, you know? But it’s always been this way… You know what’s weird? Monster trucks. That’s weird. I literally don’t understand what is going on.
Like watching NASCAR…. You can’t see their faces! It’s weird. I think these things go in cycles a bit. The gorgeous thing about opera is if you’ve seen one, you are kind of intrigued…usually. I don’t know many people who’ve seen their first opera and been like “Yeah, you know what? That sucks. Never again.”
It sticks with you regardless. Even if it’s weird and crazy. Sometimes especially if it’s weird and crazy.
I saw that Phillip Glass thing, as a freshman in college, falling in and out of sleep, all in German. It was insane. But I have some very vivid memories or hallucinations of it. This was Kepler? I loved that show. And the other weird thing about opera is that the piece and the production are two different things. So with Phillip’s work, it’s even more interesting because sometimes he’ll write a piece and it’ll get like four productions. So the communicative ability of it is complicated. He did one thing and there’s all this other stuff that loosely attendant to it.
We kind of addressed this question of the challenges considering the audience when composing a work. When you are working, you’re not necessarily thinking explicitly about maybe petty concerns with regard to appeasing an audience or attracting a new audience, are you? Here’s the thing. I’m of two simultaneous minds about it. Obviously you want people to come to your show. On just a very base level, I want people to be there. But there’s not much I can do about that. The one thing I know I can do is make good work. That’s in my control. But when I’m making it I can’t be like, “Are people gonna come?” That feels like wasted time. So you have to sort of have a duality about it because you don’t want to—it’s not saying “Fuck the audience.” It’s saying that my understanding of the contract that we have is that I’m gonna do the best that I can and maybe you’ll come.
I was born in 1990, so I have very distinct memories of the introduction of personal computing and the early internet, as well as my experiments and encounters with it. You are a bit older, and presumably could have observed the shift more, or at least differently. What was your experience of technology growing up? Do you have any early memories of your first encounter? What about with the internet? Personal experiences with chat rooms or lurid websites or internet-only friends? I’m 10 years older than you are, and that’s a big difference in terms of just what we had access too. I grew up in a situation where there was one computer for everyone in my household and it was a dial-up situation, so what that meant is that there really wasn’t that much time to get into that much trouble. But instead I found myself developing—I went to music camp in the summer, and then you’d stay in touch with those people that you would almost never care to do over the phone. But you could stay in touch with these weird ICQ chat clients and stuff. And you find yourself having more emotional intimacy with people on the internet who you’d spend two weeks with than you did with people you saw every day. And I felt that shift happen. Where you’d be like “Oh, I cant wait to go home and gossip with my friends in California.” The emotional anticipation of an online rendezvous weirdly became more exciting than an offline one.
I felt that happen really specifically when I was like 16. So that was interesting. And also by the time I was 21 or 20, by then everything stared picking up. And people were starting to really be able to manipulate the technology a lot better. Because before all they had was just text, so you couldn’t really send a picture that easily, and it was complicated. So I would say I was of average perversion online. It certainly wasn’t anything like what these kids get up to.
They’ve got more at the disposal. But it’s interesting now when you think about how parents teach their kids Netiquette or whatever—when I was a kid it was just don’t talk to strangers and don’t get into the car with anyone you don’t know. Whereas now you have to teach a whole different set of behavioral things, right?
There’s a lot more to police.
There’s a lot more to police. And what I think changed is that it used to be that parents would tell their children advice that made sense because the parents themselves would’ve gone through it and learned from their mistakes. People have been abducting kids since forever so don’t get into cars. Whereas what was interesting for my generation and probably also for yours, and I assume it’s getting even more intense now, is that the parents are finding themselves in the position of having to enforce rules over something they themselves didn’t have. I mean, I just got an email from mother in all caps with no spaces because the spacebar is broken so it’s just periods between. So it’s like, then to have that person telling me when I can and cannot – that’s strange.
And now, it’s even crazier. I have a friend who has an 11-year-old and she’s got a cell phone – it’s one of those iPhone color whatever – and she can get into any manner of trouble. And her dad has a Blackberry and has no idea what is going on. He has no idea how fast it is to get into serious emotional bonds. You shouldn’t get up from the table and go hide in the stairwell for 15 seconds and get really into it. All that’s new and all that’s changing. And it’s not necessarily always bad, by the way. I always think about how despite that we’re all really plugged in, there’s still sad gay kids who grew up in the South and just need to get the hell out of there. And that ability to just take a breath and feel like you are somewhere is amazing.
And thinking about digital duality, and conceptions of online and offline, there’s space for a diverse range of possibilities and realities. It’s more about sort of traversing or transitioning—where you start to acknowledge that these things are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of our lives, and our lives are now always online and offline simultaneously and that way of living is beginning to extend to different facets of life, and with that extension comes new and different challenges… Exactly. It’s the same old drug just a different needle.
This was great. How about some obligatory Gothamist gabbing? How long have you lived in New York? Since 1999. I’ve been on the Lower East Side since 2005. I’m more sort of the Chinatown end of things.
What kind of changes have you noticed? I have to say that’s not a thing that gives me great anxiety. And Chinatown is relatively slow to change. I’ve been going to the same vegetable stand since before I even moved down here. It’s funny because there were a couple storefronts that have been like for a minute. It was a hipster café of this variety and then it closed and then reopened as a another thing. I’m one of those weird people who sort of likes the way in which Manhattan is a sort of a breathing ecosystem where stuff fails and stuff comes back and stuff doesn’t work. I think we’re in a good place right now. My neighborhood is in a constant state of community beautification. I live across from a community garden and every morning at 8 o’clock there’s five women doing marital arts and they are all in their 90s. There’s an amazing garden over there. It feels sort of timelessly Lower East Side. I’m lucky though that I don’t live in one of those blocks where every 5 seconds is a new club or something.
It’s interesting how Chinatown sort of is insulated and insulates itself… I’ve met a lot of sensible people who are like “Oh, I could never live down there. It’s so chaotic.” And that makes me happy, because I thrive on that. I thrive on the two old women beating each other down with tongs for ginkgo nuts they’re harvesting. I live for that. And then those people who say, “I could never,” move to like Murray Hill. And that’s good. We want this. They can totally have Murray Hill. I had to go up there the other day. I don’t think I have ever for any reason been to 3rd Avenue and 25th street. And I had to go there to see a friend. And I was just like—what is this neighborhood? Am I in New York? And I love that. I love that I can still be surprised by something a mile from my house.
A couple years ago I had some time to kill and I was seeing a board member of this opera company who lives by the U.N. And I was like “I’m gonna go sit at a bar by the U.N. and see what that is like.” What is that tram going across the river? And you put Gristedes in the bridge? In the base of the Manhattan Bridge, there’s a women selling frogs out of a bucket.