Nico Muhly’s Two Boys on Nonesuch

In a recent article that briefly examines some of the lasting impact that Beethoven has had on western music, Alex Ross identifies the near impossibility of overstating this composer’s status as an icon of classical music. Giants like Beethoven continue to exert their influence on classical music, not only through performances and recordings of their music, but also for the societal status that those performances hold. Put another way, music makers and music lovers seem to take comfort in heroic figures that map our creative landscape and give direction to our endeavors. It comes as no shock, then, that Two Boys, the recent opera by composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas, was discussed as if it was intended either as bait for youth—to convince them that opera is cool—or a statement about what opera, and classical music more generally, ought to be in the coming years and decades.

The discussion was no doubt due to the subject matter and libretto for the opera. Two Boys was inspired by a true story from the early days of commercial internet use, in which Brian (Paul Appleby), a teenage boy, stabs Jake (Christopher Bolduc), another teenage boy, after their lives become intertwined through a network of chatrooms. The opera opens as Jake has just been stabbed, and the narrative follows police detective Anne Strawson (Alice Coote) as she tries to untie the story behind the stabbing. The audience, therefore, pieces together bits of the boys’ story as the opera unfolds. Although this technique certainly isn’t new as a narrative technique, its use here serves two brilliantly expressive purposes. First, it acts as a mirror to internet culture itself and the fragmented process of information sharing that it has bestowed on our generation. Second, it allowed Muhly to write music that fit both the nature of the libretto and his own musical language, setting the proverbial and literal stage for some poignantly beautiful moments.

Nico Muhly - Photo by Matthew Murphy

Nico Muhly (photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

As with any opera in audio recording, Nonesuch’s recent release of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 production of Two Boys loses a profound aspect of what must have been an incredible show. Despite this, the album sheds light on a score that deserves a listen (or several) for those of us not fortunate enough to see it live. Recorded live on October 21 and November 6, 2013, the music and story remain alive in recorded form. Muhly’s pulsating and minimalist musical language is economical in making the story comprehendible, and yet consistently engaging. Several critics have found fault with this aspect of Muhly’s music for Two Boys—saying, for example, that it trades one ostinato for another—but in recorded form it seemed an accurate reflection of the haphazard and inconsistent timeline presented by libretto. Muhly’s sense of pacing is also admirable: the chorus seems to always find its way into the score at just the right moments, and the complex yet clear sound of the full ensemble (especially in the final scene) is breathtaking. Many of the aria’s in Two Boys are equally arresting. “I’m only sixteen!” occurs near the end of the first act when Anne, the detective, is interrogating Brian, the boy accused of the crime. The text before the aria is set to moving lines in clarinet with articulating bass drum hits, which create a sense of urgency despite the relatively thin texture. This urgency is put in sharp relief by Brian’s aria, during which Brian expresses his resignation that Anne cannot understand how tangible the internet world is for him. Paul Appleby’s performance of this aria gracefully portrays Brian succumbing to the realization that Anne is one step removed from the world he is describing, and in doing so ushers the audience from a visceral setting, the interrogation room, into the very world which Brian claims to inhabit.

Nonesuch’s release features an extensive book of notes, including a very thoughtful introductions by Adam Gopnik (listen to his conversation with Nico Muhly about the work) and Elena Park (read her full article from the Met’s season book). The notes also include Lucas’s full libretto, which some may find intriguing when listening to this release since many of the chatroom scenes feature common web abbreviations like “n2m” and “who r u”? Recording, engineering, and producing an album of live opera performances cannot be an easy feat, but Jay David Saks, John Bowen, and John Kerswell made the work come to life for this release; balances are fantastic, and it is often easy to think that these were recorded without an audience present.

Two Boys does have moments that verge on cliché in their technological clumsiness. For me, Lucas occasionally goes a bit too far in purposefully utilizing chatroom colloquialisms such as “age/sex/location,” “want 2 go private?” and “lmfao!!!” But any description that focuses only on these aspects of Two Boys falls short in its characterization by ignoring the humanistic narrative that drives this work at its core. In Muhly’s own words:

[Two Boys] was not designed to solve a made-up crisis in classical music; it was not designed to attract young people to the opera house (as if young people are moths, drawn toward a patio light). It was not designed to make a statement about the future of the genre, about the way opera ‘should’ be commissioned or workshopped or not. It was just, I had hoped, a good show.

Though I can’t speak for the show, the recording did indeed tell a good story, and I will certainly be returning to it sooner rather than later.

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