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My neck, my back, my haterade, and my cracked phone

from Monday, July11th of the year2011.

I am, at long last, back in New York. We had a not-overly-sentimental last night of Two Boys on Friday, followed by a completely tame after-party experience with the cast and creative team and some crew (does “crew” include stage management? Those guys were the best). Friday was a fun show — apparently there were millions of subs in the orchestra, which always makes for a slightly more anxious (in a good way) conducting style. I always think a little surprise energy helps things move along, like an espresso from a new place or an unexpected free sample of chocolate.

I’ve been loosely holding my tongue about the Overall Experience of this opera, just because I felt like really, the whole thing wouldn’t be done until I was back in this specific chair with this specific coffee and everything loosely in order. Let me give you a little overview of what a morning post-opera is like. I wandered over to my score cabinets to discover that the dog-sitter has left three copies of the New York Times review of the piece above my Albert Herring score. I am not reading any reviews or blogs or whatever at all, at least yet, although I’m told that this one is great. I’m having all of them posted in the press section of this space, so, if anybody’s curious, check it out. I opened up the internet-machine to discover a host of opera-related internetz. Nicky Spence is on twitter! (@nickythespence). Facebook is filled with the cast writing one another sweet notes about how much fun they had. The costume designer is in a tiny hotel room in Paris. One of the actors has a new job starting next week. All of these people are my new friends and co-authors. Then I turned on twitter. It’s like, usually a cesspool of haterade, and some nice stuff, but today there is an especially vile exchange that I’d like to just briefly wade into to make a more elaborate, and I hope mature, point than is being made in 140 characters or less. Essentially, there is a round-robin of haters all who either came or didn’t come to the opera who hated it and that’s their right. But then! One of them is an artist! Oh snap. He says, “Every single person I’ve spoken to about the opera said it’s over-hyped bilge. Yet no one dares to openly say it.” (I’d interject here that I think half of the internet went right ahead and said it, as well as several national papers). Okay. Now, in the interests of us all being adults here, let’s name names. This is written by the very excellent pianist Nick van Bloss, whose Goldbergs are really good. The canons are especially clear and I like them a lot, and he looks a little bit like Mark Padmore, whom I love. His comment came in the middle of a more elaborate (and very mean-spirited) conversation about press & PR and all that stuff, which is a very good conversation to have. So let’s have it!

I understand that an opera house’s goal is to do things: put on great work, and get people in to see said work. The composer’s job, as far as I can tell, lies exclusively in the first category. However, there is an expectation that the composer will help with the second. That includes doing an extraordinary amount of press, because having press surrounding a project gets people in to see it, or at least, makes people aware of it. The press has nothing whatsoever to do with the work; the work is finished almost seven months before one starts talking to anybody about it. I’m looking at this diary here and it says that I did, on average, five press “things” a week for the two months and change I was in London — this is interviews, photos, phone calls, emails, writing things, all manner of radio. Believe me when I say that none of this is my choice, but also believe me when I say that the lovely press team at the ENO did everything they could to make it painless. Missing 20 minutes of a piano and stage rehearsal to talk with an obstinate reporter about something she could have googled is not my idea of a good time. Being in a hot room with some ancient dude from the beeb making me answer questions about Rufus’s opera, which I liked, and he clearly didn’t, was obnoxious. However, I understand that doing this press cheerfully and without complaint is part of making the Whole Thing Work, and so I do it. (Also, these people are doing their jobs, just as I’m doing mine). I use “The Whole Thing” in the sense not only of the many moving parts that make up the opera, but also, the world of new work, commissions: I’m committed to making the process as transparent as possible, and, through that, making the whole thing seem less scary and unknowable. The goal is that not just what I’m doing but all new music gets more exposure.

The idea of things being part of something bigger is incredibly important to understand in an opera, too. Inasmuch as it stems from two pens only, it is a hugely collaborative – necessarily collaborative – endeavor. Leaving aside the creative team, there are close to a hundred people running around on stage making this enormous mechanism work. The work is as much for them as it is for the audience; their commitment to it is hugely, hugely important. So you think about them when you do that ninth interview of the day, or that totally inconveniently-timed radio interview. You also think about the singers, who, at the time of the radio interview, are working with vocal coaches figuring out how exactly to place the [ch] sound in the word much, and you think about the props department rigging up the little yellow lights that surround the laptop screens, and you think about the video team staying up all night to re-format some of the text in a projection near the end of Act II, and the administration of the opera, who have bravely put their weight behind a very complicated and multi-faceted new work. I’ve done press — not for this project but for other things — where you know they are reading off of a hastily-googled playlist of buzzwords: Gay, American, Young, Philip Glass, Björk, in any order. It makes me want to take holy orders. The last time I endured a press junket I made the mistake of reading all the reviews afterwards, and in some cases, I got punished for over-exposure by the same paper that had, in my opinion, rather over-exposed me not three weeks before! Is this my fault? Is it anybody’s?

I’ve been guilty of this bad attitude before, although never publicly, with one exception, in this space, about which I am still doing private penance. I used to be like, ugh, Lang Lang, overhyped. It wasn’t until I saw him play the Ravel bothhands concerto in St Petersburg last year that I was like, oh wow, he’s really good at the piano! And all my favorite tempi! And then, sitting in my hotel room at 4 AM in the blinding sunlight, it also dawned on me that it was really unfair and churlish to judge him on “his” outrageous press materials, because there is such a disconnect between how beautiful that second movement is and all those Audi ads, and I’m more interested in (a) than (b), so I just won’t think about (b) anymore. And it’s not like he is the only pianist in the world; every ten seconds another great disc by somebody else comes along, and I buy that, too. It’s the same thing for self-generated publicity, too. I like Milton Babbitt’s music, but I don’t like how he describes music. So I don’t read (b) and I listen to (a). I think Boulez’s music is fucking genius, ecstatic, decadent robotgasm Franco-gay pageantry, and I listen to it a lot. The minute you read anything he writes about anything, you want to vom, so I just don’t read it! It’s just self-contradictory I-was-4-stravinsky-b4-I-was-against-it ooga-booga nonsense anyway, and I think he’s a much better composer than he is polemicist, so I just listen to the music and haven’t read a thing he’s said since 1999. And I’m happy! And he’s happy because I keep on giving his CDs away as gifts and make it rain on DG every time a new album drops.

So, in that context, it is actually galling to get comments that conflate the “hype” around a project with the quality of the work. I understand if you don’t like it. There’s nothing anybody can say about my music that I don’t tell myself about six thousand times a day. But the constant insistence on putting the PR/press in the immediate proximity of the work is unfair, and is especially unfair coming from another artist; I’m picking needlessly on NvB, but the reason it struck me is because I was just listening to his Goldbergs last week, and was like, oop! Anonymous online opera fans, that’s fine: they don’t know how it works, and they don’t need to: they are the weird lymph that keeps the whole opera world afloat and they buy tickets and they come and hate everything and that’s great. File under: bile or catarrh. Not nice to smell but it has its purpose. Critics, too; they’re a strange bacterial species and you take the good with the bad — it helps with the cultural digestion and also sometimes can give you cultural thrush. But Nick van Bloss, girl, why you got to do me that way? Was the piece really that bad, or was it made more bad, in your eyes, by the press? Are all of our efforts — all hundred and change of us — in the service of something truly that awful? Or is there something else at work here? I think the moral of the story is that we owe it to each other as artists to ignore this secondary noise and focus on the work. I’m almost regretting voicing this so extensively; it took almost as long to write this as it would to sit down and listen to the opera! But then it occurred to me that this needed to be said: if there are people who honestly came to it and felt angry at not only the work, but the hype (or some strange emulsion of the two, which seems to be more likely the case), this is a conversation that we very much need to be having.

Back to my abused straw-man: that comment is vexing coming from an artist who has had her own PR spice rub; homegirl’s excellent musicianship can easily be overshadowed by extramusical concerns that are much more pressnip than the fact that her ornaments are tight. The first sentence of xi bio on Wikipedia says that xi suffer from Tourette syndrome, right there! I know that people don’t (or at least shouldn’t) edit they own Wikipedia but do you see how unfair it would be for another artist to forever and permanently conflate however it is that this diagnosis has played in the press with NvB’s own desires and volition? It makes me sad more than angry, to think that another artist, whose work I like and respect, who has also done a ton of press (even some personal, kind of intimate press) wouldn’t understand how this works. (I should add here that it is odd that it’s continuing after the show closed, as if somehow I’ve made something that is so vile, so offensive, that it needs to be talked about during the summer holiday). Normally, I take on the sort of self-helpy attitude to just ignore the haters, but coming from artists, it’s harder to ignore, and especially on something so connected to the body as twitter, which, unlike blogs, comes into my pocket.

I know that doing as much press as I have done for Two Boys struck me, at the time, as rather a lot but not excessive. Also, it is in my nature to be simultaneously nervous about over-exposure and also very eager to please all my collaborators and particularly the Press Lady whom I rather like; as in, we would totally hang out outside of work, mybe. She gets paid cash money to understand how the press works. I get paid cash money to write the opera. We have to help one another out, she and I, and at a certain point, she has to trust that I’ve written something worth publicizing, and I have to trust that she’s not going to over- or under-do it. And I also understand that the opera house has to fill some percentage of their 2,300 seats and that the way in which they can be emboldened to commission other new works is by having a new work get enough people through the door one way or another. This is very important, and I think this goes to the heart of the matter: having a new work that people go to, even if you don’t like it, is a very, very good thing, because chances are, the house will be emboldened to then put on something that perhaps you will like more. I cannot overemphasize this, and this is how I feel like I can be Christlike in the face of music that is not to my taste. Cosmetically, crazy online + print buzz about something new, whether it’s Tom Adès, or me, or Luke Bedford, or a new production of the Rang cycle, is Good in a larger way. Waking up and posting something snippy or mean or dismissive on the internet helps positively nobody, and works actively against something you like ever seeing a stage or a wax cylinder because the world will be filled with bitter people as opposed to people trying to do the best they can, which, at the beginning & end of the day, is all I was up to with Boys. All of us on team classical music are sailing through tricky passages, but there is room for everybody both florid and thorny.

Moral of the story! Everybody buy Nick Van Bloss Goldbergs here, and everybody buy Boulez’s Répons here, support young artists here, and let’s keep this conversation moving forward.

Okay! Now that that’s out of the way, more on the opera process. Beloveds, it is crazy and fun. I would (and will!) do it again in a second. It is not, as some had warned me, a slow burn. It’s actually an excruciatingly slow smolder for about four weeks, and then the last two weeks are like holy shit everything’s happening at once. The first four weeks are tiny details working on a sound-stage, basically, figuring out little gestures and putting together the phonemes of the piece. Then all of a sudden, around week three, words begin to emerge, and at week four, a grammar, a style! I aged about ten years in the first orchestra rehearsal, and required a very serious evening of drink with Tom Adès and others who had Been Thru It to right me again. The first few days on stage were simultaneously breathtakingly great — costumes! — and breathtakingly frustrating: why can’t we just see the whole scene! Why is everybody talking about this little swatch of fabric that nobody can even see? Of course, by that point, the show has its own gravitational pull and all these different things are running around like crazy: the lighting designer is here, the video is there, there is somehow still more press (Latvian magazine!? Who is this Brazilian woman with a camera crew?!) and it’s just an intense, crazy cartoon-like and gorgeous process. And then suddenly: you’re open and everybody flies in from America and one’s parents turn up and one’s boyfriend’s parents turn up and it’s priests everywhere and friendly homosexicals and mean homosexicals and cabaret artists and polygamist floral arrangements and widows and strippers and the baritone’s cute mom and the soprano’s baby-daddy and who knows how many children! So good.

In other news, can somebody find me a way to exchange my iPhone 4 UK from Orange to O2? I can’t bear Orange anymore!!!


  • That man, is a jerk (nick van bloss)!! A very eloquent response, much love & Fuck the haters!

  • This was a real pleasure to read. Strange to choose Twitter to launch complaints, be graceful and just talk behind people’s backs. Haters gonna hate.

  • Sould you stop putting together writers, guardians of heterodoxy, critics and ladies that dwell in moral mazes to psychoanalyze our virtual egos? I got the feeling that something interesting was going on and I wasn’t disappointed at all.
    What I find disquieting is the slightly patronizing attitude: “everybody secretly thinks that the “emperor is naked” but only I am brave enough to speak truth to power on behalf of this humble and conformist crowd.” Well, if you think you can’t safely voice dissent in this on-line days you were so mesmerized by the opera´s music that you didn’t get the plot. Composer has a point.

  • First of all, in a word, CONGRATULATIONS.

    Now, in probably too many words, this [great, necessary] post reminds me of a documentary I saw on insects, or wildlife in the Amazon, or insects in the Amazon, or whatever, and how these ants that live in the vicinity of the Amazon River deal with the regular, dependable floods that come with living next to a giant river.

    When the Amazon breaks its banks and floods the surrounding forest, the ants leave their hole/home and all hook elbows (really, elbows? Help?) until they’ve formed a raft that is made entirely out of living ants. Every ant is a part of the raft, and the Queen is, of course, in the most protected position, at the center.

    The ant-raft rises with the waters and floats through the flooded forest until it bumps into a tree, at which point the ants who bumped the tree grab on, and the raft disassembles itself, ant by ant.

    This is the metaphor I always use to describe how I think the music world works, or at least how it should work. It’s especially true for the new music world, but it’s also true of the wider classical world. We are the ants, and we either hook elbows and rise together, or we drown together.

  • Nico – thanks for your very kind words about my Goldberg Variations.

    To put this in perspective for your readers, I was not expressing a personal opinion, but relaying what I was constantly hearing – the hype and the reaction to it. I do understand how, as artists, we are sensitive, which is why I withdrew the tweet, but not before posting the following on Twitter:

    ‘To balance what I said about ‘hype’, which is rife in Cl Music – Nico’s Gibbons arrangements are masterpieces and a testament to genius. Certainly for my desert island’.

    Much more importantly, if you find an answer to your problem with Orange, do let me know! I’m trying to do exactly the same thing. No joy yet…


  • as somebody who got hated on by thousands of a tv personality’s twitter followers today (it seems I ruined the internet today), the haters do hate, don’t they?

    But I wanted to thank you for writing this, and for writing the opera, and for doing all that press. You were doing that press not just for yourself or for the hundreds of people as you pointed out, but also as you said for all of us in the new music community. I’m a totally unknown composer, and maybe I always will be, but you were making the road for the rest of us smoother and raising the public image for all of us. Used to be you’d be a pioneer for being gay and doing that, but today you’re a pioneer for being a LIVING composer and doing that. Maybe not as glam, but means a lot to us. Maybe that will be a few less people who look like confused dogs when we tell them what we do, then ask, ‘You mean like Beethoven? People still do that? Do you write with a quill?’ Thanks again! Looking forward to hearing the opera whenever it becomes possible for the impoverished.

  • Loved this post Nico. While the opera is VERY different from , cough cough, “indie rock” , the whole hype/critic circle jerk is still very similar. I remember getting glowing reviews live/album, etc in a certain established paper, only to have what was arguably our best live show trashed like crazy. I then saw a critic who positively reviewed an older show and he explained to me “oh they felt we were over fawning so they sent someone they knew wouldn’t like the show and doesn’t like the type of music you make”, naturally he hated it. Green Day was his #1 album for 2009. Bizarre.

    As for hype informing people’s opinion on music or art, it’s annoying but inevitable. To take it even further, someone once referenced that I tweeted too much about Pho in an album review of ours. It was a positive review, but I was like , ‘what the FUCK does me tweeting about vietnamese soup have ANYTHING to do with whether this album is good or bad in your eyes’

    anyhow. Great post. xo

  • Loved this insightful (as always) post, but I think you were kind of hard on those who toil at writing about “classical” music for what’s left of the mainstream media.
    If a classical music writer these days wanted to introduce you and your opera to their readers, the only way they *could* pitch it to any but a handful (at most) of “prestige” market editors would be to say Gay, Young, American, Philip Glass and Bjork over and over and over again (and praying all the while that they know who Philip Glass and Bjork are). And that’s what they would be expected to deliver, even if they’d much rather write seriously about your music.
    The battle to keep classical music in the general-public eye in any way, shape for form, is sadly nearly lost (trust me, I know…), and writers who want to keep fighting that fight must use whatever hooks or gimmicks are required to do so, no matter how soul(theirs)-destroying the process.
    Classical music seems these days to be the new gay, something to keep invisible in print, on radio, on TV — and surely to protect the children from. Chris Colfer can proudly strut his Julie Andrews “Le Jazz Hot” stuff on “Glee,” and that’s swell — astonishing, even, to anyone over 50. But you’ll *never* see him sing “Che faro senza Euridice” on TV (which may be just as well, but you know what I mean, hah!). Nowadays, *that* would be career suicide.
    Again, a great post, much food for thought and discussion, and keep doing all those interviews even if you’re (completely understandably from your point of view) rolling your eyes throughout. It really does matter, and it really does help.

    [Nico replies: yes, and thank you for your comment. I agree, and for the most part, the people whom I’ve talked to have been considerate, smart, had done their research, and were aware that I was in a high-stress low-time situation. Which is why the ones who weren’t stuck out all that much more! Believe me when I say, I am very glad I don’t have to keep music in the public eye; my only job is to write it. It’s getting roped into the process and then being judged for it that galls. But I’m over it now and having some lemonade.]

  • Greg Kirkpatrick
    July 12th, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    I don’t know about all this stuff. In the end you made me smile and, as always, laugh. Thanks.

  • Nico, congratulations on your recent achievements. I enjoy your music very much & your blog. I also admire your bravery in addressing and confronting the issues you did in this post. When you coming to Australia, we would very much like to see & hear you in person? Warm regards, jj.

  • Hey,

    While overall, I think your comments are quite astute, I do have to disagree with you about press being separate from the “work-in-itself” (as my philosophy profs cattle-prodded me into the habit of saying). I don’t think you’d disagree that the knowledge an audience member brings to the opera (or to any work of art) colors their perception of said work, to the extent that it could conceivably be drastically different for two observers with two different backgrounds. You mentioned earlier (tongue in cheek, but still with a bit of truth) that certain pieces of music should have required listening beforehand, such as the end of Walkure for the Tropical Storm in NiC. I don’t think this is all that different, to be honest. Wouldn’t a Jew with German heritage and a solid knowledge of the role culture played in the holocaust have a vastly different experience watching the Ring than someone without that background?

    While I don’t mean to suggest that the press for Boys was that extreme, I do think that, for better or for worse, it is part of the work itself. Even if it all centers around one-dimensional buzzwords, like “gay-minimalist-super-hyped-young-dude,” that knowledge will change the experience for the rando audience member who has it. Do you think Boys would be the same work of art had it been written exactly the same, note for note, word for word, by two straight men? Perhaps so, I don’t have the final word in the relationship between the public’s knowledge of the gestation of a work and its final impact. But personally, I think no. I think that this sort of knowledge doesn’t just color the performance, it is part of the work. Think about Beethoven: do you think his works would be as powerful if you didn’t know what you did about his life and composing process? I’m certainly not arguing that his 5th is just a shell by which a listener can experience the myths around him, but I am suggesting that at least part of the ‘struggle’ most listeners associate with that symphony comes not just from the tension in the music, but from the difficulties we know nearly drove him to suicide.

    What I’m getting at is that if you agree, on some level, that all this meta-knowledge (ugh I feel dirty saying meta-anything) affects the work, than you have to include the press about the opera as part of the opera itself. Perhaps not in the sort of permanent way that the holocaust or Heiligenstadt Testament is, but at the very least as an active partner.


    [Interesting point. I suppose I got interested in music much before I got interested in composer biographies. And I think all of that — especially about Beethoven – is a problematic Romantic-era invention. When reading your post, I literally was like, “what about the fifth symphony.” I’m not being naive — I honestly didn’t know there was something extra-musical to be known about it. I’m sure knowing more about Bach’s life wouldn’t interest me in the least. I suppose I bring some of the political senses of what was going on in, like, 1715 to bear, but at the end of the day, he was a state employee, and created, in the same service, a body of unbelievably great music. Even Byrd, about whom I think ‘we’ know more than other composers of the same age (Secret Catholick, etc.), works very well when you’re nine and you don’t know what any of that means. Plus also…”biography” exists for interest, I generously assume, even if gossipy, whereas press exists as part of a larger, more nebulous matrix of people needing to get paid, people trying to get noticed, etc. — less interesting meta-narrative… all good things to be thinking about, tho. Thanks for your comment!]

  • Dear Nico,
    Was at Coliseum Friday for the last performance, and I really loved the whole thing, amazingly beautiful music. Brought my nephew, he had never seen an opera before, and he loved it too.

  • Congratulations on your opera but don’t let the hateraders make you vulnerable. Stay true to your art so that the music continues to comes from your heart and soul unaltered by their words; however valid criticism is a good thing and important for one’s development, but you know that!
    Bring your opera to Canada and I shall buy a ticket and bring my friends too.

  • Here is what I learned from quickly reading a lot of the reviews of TWO BOYS: some people love it, some people don’t, some people seem animated by profound rage and some people seem concerned about everything but the story and the experience and the music, some people are looking to tell Time Itself whether this is the next big thing or the most recent dumb fizzle and nobody, not one, said or asked, Was this entertaining and compelling for the people in the room? Even Virgil Thomson, in his original dismissal of PETER GRIMES, noted that the roof came off the place when all was said and done, and he went on to suggest that it most certainly would enter the repertory even though he thought it was shit. So, maybe the critics do serve some alchemical or biochemical service to process art, but it seems to have very little to do with any actual discussion of how the music or the narrative literally works in any artful or artless fashion. Only one review sounded as if it were written by someone who actually knew anything concrete about singing, acting, writing, composing, directing, etc. And all the loved it/hated it bandying back and forth left out a discussion of entertainment. Or is opera only for rating and sequestering in various shelves in a museum? It’s all new to me, and I wrote the libretto.

  • I was at the final performance and I really enjoyed it. It was probably the fourth opera I’ve ever been to, the first one I’ve paid for, and the first one I’ve seen in English. I love your “Speaks Volumes” record and I saw the “Two Boys” posters in the tube – no way I was missing it.
    I deliberately stayed away from the press in order to just come out and experience this without any preconceptions. And I’ve avoided the reviews because I hate being told that I should or shouldn’t have liked something by people who “know”.
    Bottom line: I liked it very much! I will continue to explore both your music and the world of modern opera.
    Thanks for your work!

  • After reading some lukewarm reviews of Two Boys (I later found some much better ones) I went along to see it not expecting much – I even de-invited my boyfriend from accompanying me, because I am trying to get him into opera and didn’t want to fuck up my indoctrination programme with a bad start. I was wrong – while I think critics are useful, I am so glad I didn’t listen to them! Aurally, dramatically and visually it was beautiful and haunting, and did real justice to the tender/creepy premise. And those chatroom choruses! I can’t think of a more delicate, evocative expression of what sitting alone in a room trying to connect through a vast, shadowy network (like I’m doing now) feels like. I really couldn’t give a flying toss how my experience of the opera tallies with a hype that you did not yourself create – I just know that I had an incredible evening, so thank you

  • José Gpe. Núñez Montañez
    July 29th, 2011 at 12:18 am

    I am very sad of living in Chihuahua, very far from NY and all that incredible cultural revolution. Someone said about Two Boys something like “that is not the pattern of a youth crime”. In my words, even when I have not the pleasure to enjoy this opera, I will reply: “This is ART, not a criminalistic study. Otherwhise watch the TV series and feel happy”. I love this new and fresh music. Hope be available at our country soon. Meanwhile I will use a iTunes account to spend it on this valuable expression of humanity.

    My best regards from Jiménez, Chihuahua, Mexico!

  • Deirdre O'Leary
    August 5th, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Hello there Mr Muhly
    Looking forward swotting up on your music and playing it to you in Ireland soon!