Two boys out of line
Composer Nico Muhly on his 'gay opera'
by Michael McDonagh
Life is full of surprises. There I was at Philip Glass' former studio in New York's SoHo to get a CD of composer Nico Muhly's work from Cat Celebreeze, and just as she was giving it to me, Muhly – tall, with a pale, open face – appeared and said hello. A first listen to this non-commercial dub of live performances of nine of his pieces struck me as a journeyman's effort – he was born in 1981, and still at Juilliard when he studied with the composer of "the AIDS symphony," John Corigliano. But when I listened more closely I heard a personal voice, which his former employer Glass believes doesn't usually come early – Schubert and Prokofiev being the great exceptions – under its seemingly haphazard gestures.
Muhly is a star on the new music scene with an enviable track record of commissions cum performances for one so young, and his film score for Stephen Daldry's preposterous The Reader (2008) was its only saving grace. But the biggest buzz is for his "gay opera," Two Boys (2010), which bowed at London's English National Opera in 2011, and takes the stage at New York's Metropolitan Opera in its 2013-14 season. Is he worried about its gay content? "I'm not sure of any opera that doesn't have gay content, and murder. Don't they all?" he asks in an e-mail, firming up our lively phone chat from his East Village apartment this past fall. "I'm not worried, and at the same time I'm worried about everything all the time. I think it was Maira Kalman who said that the ordering principle of her life was fear and snacks."
Fear may be the ordering principle, but the subject of Two Boys ain't exactly a snack. A teenage boy in an industrial town in the north of England, Brian (tenor), is caught on tape after apparently having stabbed another, slightly younger boy, Jake (baritone), to death. The case is investigated by Anne (alto), and things turn out not to be what they seem. Muhly, who speaks rapidly with emphases like unequivocal downbeats, expands. "There was a real thing on which it was based. It started with one thing, and then different stories, but basically it's about boys behaving badly." Their behavior, like so much these days, centers on and is facilitated by the Net, where even the most honest people end up inventing themselves a bit.
The space between what's real and what's invented is a natural for his librettist, Craig Lucas, whose 1988 The Dying Gaul, made into a 2003 film, dealt with characters whose invented Net identities cause all kinds of havoc. Muhly is quick to praise Lucas. "Craig is so great at writing naturalistic, and we were with it from the start. We were all operating under the same obsession, and it's a still many years ongoing obsession."
Putting any show together is a lot of work, and Muhly is actively involved in rehearsals "in a room many feet down from the main stage of the Met, where we had about a dozen singers doing name parts. But once you get onstage, everything changes. Timings are different. Sitting around in a workshop is incredibly useful, but onstage everything is completely expanded, contracted."
Two Boys, directed by Bartlett Sher, also features a sort of interactive video set by Leo Warner that, from the bits I've seen on YouTube, mines the space between what's real and what's invented. Composers from Monteverdi to Muhly have always used the latest technology to make their operas speak.
Muhly is from a generation that, unlike that of Glass and Reich, didn't have to do battle with Schonberg's 12-tone school, so his horizons are open and in a way more porous. As he puts it, "My generation makes music with stuff around us. A couple of years ago, I had a revelation that was the opposite of 'don't listen to this.' Anything you're told is not true is true." It's a non-hierarchical brave new world, and Two Boys is the one in which we currently happen to live. Muhly's career is in high gear. He looks at his PC as we talk and says, "I'm booked until May 2015." But he also has the innate taste which separates the men from the boys, as in what he calls his "spider music" in his elegant and moving 2003 piece Clear Music, which he wrote for cellist Wendy Law, harp and celeste. "It doesn't get more personal than chamber music writing," he notes, and Two Boys sounds like an original take on the way we live now. The same old desires – to be loved, to be remembered – the same old pains and joys.