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Muhly’s edgy “Two Boys” opera gets London premiere

by Michael Roddy, Reuters.

If the film “The Social Network” lifted the veil on the ingenuity and intrigue behind Internet networking, the opera “Two Boys” which had its premiere on Friday focuses on what it’s like to be trapped inside the web.

Over the span of 110 minutes, American composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas take the audience and the main character, detective Anne Strawson, sung by English soprano Susan Bickley, on a journey from her office where she is trying to understand the seemingly senseless attempted murder of one teenage boy by another, to the darkest corners of the Internet.

Single, a technophobe and living with her aged mother, Bickley’s character discovers by the end that in life, as well as on the web, people “want to be loved.”
She also finds out that no one is who he or she seems to be, and that life is a masquerade — one of opera’s oldest ploys.

The production is up-to-the-minute Internet-friendly, with video projections that portray the web as twisting, interlinked strands of light, a chorus of chattering Internet voices and the whole mounted on a set that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood film “noir.”

“There is always some sense — not here, not here,” Bickley, baffled by the stabbing, sings shortly after the opera, a highly publicised co-production of the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, opens in a moody minor key.

The initial theme is a four-note riff that crops up again and again and might be a signature tune for a computer booting up or connecting to the Internet. And what a disaster awaits poor, 16-year-old Brian, a hard-working but dull student, sung superbly by the young Scottish tenor Nicky Spence. Using the web identity “A_Game,” when he logs on in his bedroom for his nightly web surfing he stumbles across the girl of his dreams, who says her name is Rebecca (soprano Mary Bevan) and uses the alias “Mindful_16.”

She says she lives in the same town, behind a new shopping mall, and has a brother Jake, but she is coy about giving out her address, although she convinces Brian to show her “his stuff,” with his pants down, using his webcam. The opera, which is based on a real case that occurred in Britain, is not recommended for anyone under the age of 16.

It turns out that “Mindful_16” as well as a secret agent named Fiona (mezzo Heather Shipp) whose files Jake supposedly has hacked from her computer, are all false identities created by Jake, who is the boy soprano in the choir at the church Brian attends with his parents and has a crush on him.

The boy soprano version of Jake (baritone Jonathan McGovern does his doppelganger) is sung by Joseph Beesley with just the right touch of innocence-going-to-seed. If he cannot have the boy of his dreams, he will manipulate Brian to stab him to death in the delivery ramp area of the shopping mall.


Muhly, who at age 29 is a rising star with feet in the independent rock scene of Icelandic singer Bjork and in the classical world, has called his first opera “a valentine to Benjamin Britten,” whose spirit seems to infuse the piece.

An orgy of Internet porn unleashed into Brian’s computer when he tries to find “Rebecca” after she abruptly stops chatting with him has echoes of a Dionysian dance interlude in Britten’s most overtly homosexual-themed opera, “Death in Venice,” based on the Thomas Mann novel.

There are ear-catching washes of sound, reminiscent of the works of American minimalists John Adams and Philip Glass, for whom Muhly worked for two years, but the overall style is very much his own. Bickley, for example, has two arias in which one of the main instrumental sounds is provided by the tuba — a stunning contrast with her strong, clear soprano voice.

The result is not a complete success for some.

“Such is the hype around the young American composer Nico Muhly that it’s difficult to judge his first opera squarely,” critic Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

“But my first impression of ‘Two Boys’ is that it is a bit of a bore, dreary and earnest rather than moving and gripping, and smartly derivative rather than distinctively individual.”

Yet for the cheering opening night audience it was a treat.

“Nico Muhly’s music is so rich and beautiful, this is for our generation,” said Ashil Mistry, 17, of London, attending with friend Anne-Marie Twumasi of Ghana.

“It’s also quite sobering,” he added.

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