Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys premieres at ENO

by Martin Cullingford,

Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys, an exploration of the internet’s impact on communications as depicted in the tragic story of two teenagers, opened at English National Opera on Friday.

The story, loosely based on real events which took place in a Northern British industrial city, sees two boys become intertwined in a dark web world of chat rooms and shrouded identities. The story is presented via the investigating detective – a single, hard-edged, whisky-drinking policewoman (a stalwart character of too many crime dramas perhaps to feel entirely fresh to UK audiences), and through the online ‘conversations’ as experienced by the older of the two boys.

It’s an impressive debut in the genre from a composer, still not 30 years old, who has garnered much attention – not to mention a Decca deal – in the past few years. But what I want to reflect on here is the setting of speech, and what that means when ‘speech’ is something very different from the eloquent oration of a Mozartian hero.

For sustained sections of the opera Muhly takes the frenetic brevity of teenagers’ online exchanges, and sets them to music, and in so doing lends these truncated stabs at socialisation a humanity that only really exists in the eyes of the protagonist. But, we’re invited to consider, does it make them any less real, or meaningful, to those involved? Setting speech to music can elevate words above the the clumsy, earthy rhythms of language – it’s what makes opera such a powerful art-form.

And so in lending eloquence to these chat-room utterances, as Muhly does, he creates an almost painful parody of conversation – it hints, with pathos, at what web communication could and should be, but here isn’t. The story reveals that the exchanges of acronyms and abbreviations so often dismissed as txt spk by most of us, have a genuine importance, an almost hyper-reality, for those involved – tragically so in this case. It’s a reality given to them by Muhly’s music, and becomes one we can no longer avoid.

Muhly’s writing owes much to John Adams and Philip Glass, which is not to imply any sense of unoriginality – it’s a language that he’s absorbed as just one part of his own musical voice. Where his voice really shines however is in the epic, aleatoric choral moments, which Muhly describes as “a highly stylized, abstracted representation of chatter, a representation of the multiplicity of what’s on the internet”. Juxtaposed with the depravity and desperation of the words and images conveyed, it becomes not a shock chorus but a powerful and haunting expression of emptiness, at once sublime and desperately sad, an elegy to wasted possibilities.

These sections are enhanced by some beautiful visual imagery from 59 Productions, which captures the vastness and interconnectivity of the online world. Incidentally, the music here (not the text of course!) brought to mind some of the most inspired moments on Muhly’s disc of Anglican choral music, ‘A Good Understanding’: you can read a recent interview with Muhly (http://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/interviews/drinking- the-air-before-him-–-nico-muhly) by Gramophone’s James Jolly about this recording.

While the medium of the web may be new, human nature never is of course: both boys are ultimately victims of themselves, and history tells us that’s an old story. As the detective’s elderly mother reminds us when her daughter bemoans the youth of today, her generation was just the same. And despite the opera’s bleak analysis of the dark byways of the digital universe, Muhly, we might conclude from his blog (http://nicomuhly.com/) , sees much good in computers too. And if you’re reading this, I can assume you do as well.

We must just be grateful then that in Muhly’s youth, his computer presumably spent more time running Sibelius notation software than logged in to chat rooms.

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