Finally, an Art Form That Gets the Internet: Opera

True to operatic tradition, Nico Muhly's Two Boys has murder, cross-dressing, and an angry mob of commenters.
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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Brian, 16, is instant-messaging. He’s chatting with a girl he’s never met in person—a girl who, by the looks of her avatar, seems both his age and more beautiful than any girl who’s ever deigned to talk to him. And she just asked to take the chat private.

Sitting at his laptop, in his room, Brian pauses for a moment; his mouth hangs between a smile and an inhaled breath. He gets up, hurries to the door, makes sure his parents aren’t on the other side. He locks it. He hustles around his room again, around his bed and back to his computer—I can see the disbelief, awe, anxiety on his face—and sits back down at the computer. They’re in a private chat room now, this girl and him.

He faces the laptop. On his screen, words appear from the girl: “What’s going on?”

The words appear on a tower as tall as a house behind Brian’s head. Hazy music wafts around him, music over which the girl—her name’s Rebecca—sings: “What’s going on?” The music swirls again.

Thousands of us are watching him, watching him respond, seeing what he’ll do next.

***

How do you depict the Internet in art? I can think of few current aesthetic crises as vital as this one. As the writer Quinn Norton has said, “Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.”

I grew up typing. Hours of my adolescence passed in AOL Instant Messenger chats, in Facebook comment threads, in earnest email confessions. So when I heard, four years ago, that a new opera would address teenagers, the web, and the anxieties of both, I was intrigued.

That opera is called Two Boys, and it premiered last week at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. It runs until the middle of November.

The 16 year-old protagonist, Brian, portrayed by Paul Appleby (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Nico Muhly, its composer, is 32, the youngest musician ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. You have probably heard his music: He scored the film The Reader, played keyboards with the Arcade Fire on Saturday Night Live, orchestrated songs for albums by Grizzly Bear and Sigur Rós’s Jonsi. He seems easy to categorize with the faddish language of the commercially hip. As William Robin joked in the New Yorker last week: “fashion-friendly, foodie, indie-classicist, Millennial tweets—while audaciously writing pop and classical music at the same time!

Muhly has constructed something more substantial with his career. He’s busy: Since Two Boys was commissioned six years ago, he’s composed more than 70 pieces. As Robin puts it, Muhly’s oeuvre subverts a “Beethoven Paradigm,” common to the last century of classical music, in which an aloof artist emits a single, epochal work every few years, and for it substitutes a “Vivaldi Paradigm,” where music becomes the workaday product of a chipper, collaborative craftsman. Reading Robin’s essay, I thought of the “practice your passion” rhetoric of life hack blogs and maker culture mags. I thought of this tweet:

I thought even of that Ira Glass video where he admonishes wannabe storytellers to “work through the suck.” Muhly isn’t nearly the only composer to embody that attitude—if it’s how artists get better, they all do, right?—but his career might seem its avatar.

At a Two Boys rehearsal, he sat mostly in the audience with his laptop, but dashed every so often to the stage or to the director’s side. In conversation, he can layer phrases so quickly that he trips over them; in person, he was inordinately helpful. He wears mostly draping black things, and his head is shaved save for a central, confetti-like poof; in a Reddit AMA, he said that, with it, “normally we’re going for a sort of Guggenheim Bilbao effect.”

***

The story unfolds as a police procedural. Set in the north of England in 2003, the audience follows Anne Strawson, a detective charged with investigating the stabbing of a 13-year-old boy named Jake.

The main suspect is a 16-year-old boy named Brian, the only witness to the crime. But instead of a confession, he supplies first surliness, then an intricate alibi: Shadowy friends of his, including a “perv” gardener and a high-ranking female officer of the M15, ordered him to stab the younger boy. Moreover, he has been negotiating these forces for some time: His girlfriend, Rebecca, Jake’s sister, whom he knew only through chatrooms, was recently raped and murdered by the “perv” gardener. There are further details, but Brian is made to understand by all the members of his network that he can either stab Jake or die, and that, regardless, Jake will soon die of cancer.

Based on real events that occurred in 2003, Two Boys’ story was most popularly described in a Vanity Fair article. There, as in the opera, the twist is the same: Jake, this 13-year-old boy, was and always had been every person in Brian’s network of chatroom friends. When Brian stabs Jake, Jake has incited it.

***

“This is an opera that is essentially set on the Internet,” says Mark Grimmer. “And we don’t know what the Internet really looks like.”

Grimmer is a designer at Fifty Nine Productions, the firm that the Two Boys directing team turned to to help realize the opera’s web. Fifty Nine Productions creates projections and moving images for live performances. The Met has used its work before, but the scope of its presentation goes far beyond opera: It contributed to the 2011 Tony Award-winning production of War Horse, a straight play; and to the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in London.

The 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony in London, for which Fifty Nine Productions created the video presentations (Reuters)

Fifty Nine Productions’s two principal designers and directors, Grimmer and Leo Warner, joined a creative team that was similarly seasoned. Bartlett Sher, Two Boys’ director, has directed repertory operas at the Met before, and he won a Tony in 2008 for his South Pacific. Michael Yeargan, the set designer, teaches at Yale and has also designed for the Met before. Craig Lucas, the librettist, is also a playwright and actor, and has worked with Stephen Sondheim. It is a veteran team, and it had a tough problem.

“We want to explore not just literal representations of how online communication works, but also more poetic expressions of what interconnectedness means,” says Grimmer. “So it was a big sort of digital headache, wasn’t it?”

***

Two Boys ran for the first time in the summer of 2011 at the English National Opera. Before that production, the team met to negotiate the big digital headache. (Before you can even project anything, you must have a surface to project it on.) They decided on a not-quite-bare stage: Six large, fabric-covered towers dominate the space, three on the right and on the left. They shift across the stage, right and left, backward and forwards, and they sometimes spin to reveal a too-tall door or window. They’re hollow—in fact, there is a staircase inside each, so chorus members can ascend within them.

Brian’s room, with Alice Coote as Anne Strawson, Jennifer Zetlan as Rebecca, and Paul Appleby as Brian (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The projection team found it had two loose kinds of spaces to create on the gray towers: digital and physical. Physical spaces—a detective’s office, an alley, a bedroom—could be dispatched without complication. Grimmer and Warner have made these spaces white or gray, steeped in a businesslike malaise: The sky outside the detective’s office was a kind of static charcoal, “the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.” These physical spaces were created, too, with a few props on the forward stage: A desk crowded with papers, a filing cabinet with an indoor plant, and a chair become Strawson’s office. A bed, a desk, a chair, a laptop that glowed a bluish white, and a freestanding door became Brian’s room. During transitions, these were whisked away unobtrusively by chorus members or hidden behind the towers.

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

(Even the props masquerading as high-tech were low: The ubiquitous laptops, toted around by the chorus, which gave singers’ faces a blue glow, seemed, upon inspection during rehearsal, to be made of cardboard, their lurid screen shine nothing more than a ring of LCDs. The towers’ ominous movements was made possible by “rails” which were nothing more than gaps in the raised stage floor.)

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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