Biting Britten

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:04

On Nico Muhly's Two Boys, plus the demise of City Opera

The Metropolitan Opera has been staging a work it commissioned, Two Boys, by Nico Muhly. The composer is an American in his early 30s. The librettist, too, is an American, Craig Lucas, the playwright who wrote Prelude to a Kiss, among other well-known scripts. But their story is British: a tale "loosely inspired by real events in England in the early 21st century," as the program notes say.

That story is about the world of Internet chat rooms, a world that can be dark and depraved, as well as light and beneficial. At the end of Two Boys, one of those boys is dead.

Knowing that the opera was about the Internet, I wondered how it could possibly be pulled off. People sitting at screens do not an opera make, normally. But I soon found out how: You do it by showing screens onstage-very large-and by having your characters sing the lines they type. For example, we might see the old abbreviation "n2m," and a singer will sing, "Not too much." It is all rather ingenious. The production is in the hands of Bartlett Sher, a director known in both the Broadway and the opera realms.

How about the music? It is often minimalistic, in the mode of Glass or Reich. There is lots of "soft percussion," which is to say mallet instruments (mainly). The music is sometimes New Agey, Californian, psychedelic. There is a church scene in this opera, and therefore a bit of church music, as in Tosca and other works. The score is also Brittenesque, which I will explain as follows: You know that secular spirituality (for lack of a better phrase) that marks so many works by Britten? It's here, too. Muhly's opera is Brittenesque down to the boy soprano and the sexual torment. At the end of the opera, there is a skillful ensemble, which made me think of the quintet at the end of Vanessa (Barber) and the octet at the end of Summer and Smoke (Hoiby).

I have done what a lot of people do when writing or talking about new music: refer to other composers. But I would not deny Muhly his individuality. One outstanding thing about his score is that it's kind: sincere, earnest, sympathetic, humane. Muhly is on the side of his characters. There is much meanness in the story, but no meanness in the score.

The story has huge tension and suspense, like a whodunit. In fact, that's what it is, certainly in part. So I have to ask, "Once you've seen the opera once, and know how it comes out, can you see it again?" Well, you can see Tosca again, even though you know that Cavaradossi falls dead and his girlfriend jumps. But I'm not sure that Two Boys can ever be as suspenseful, and therefore as effective, as on first experiencing it. Here is another question: "Can you listen to it on the radio?" Two Boys is heavily dependent on the visual, specifically those screens.

Let me give you a third question, just for fun: When directors go to update this opera-because updating is what they feel they need to do-what will they replace the Internet with?

I could pick at Muhly's opera till the cows come home, but it is still an achievement. I will close with a strange statement, though a perfectly true one: I was eager for the opera to end, but I was engaged by it, and respected it, while it was taking place.

In September, City Opera staged Anna Nicole, a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage (about Anna Nicole Smith, the late, tragic tabloid personality). And that was it: City Opera folded, after 70 years in business. Julius Rudel, the nonagenarian conductor who began with the company shortly after it was founded, made a poignant statement: "I would not have thought in my wildest dreams that I would outlive the opera company."

With a politician's gift for the rhetorical phrase, Fiorello La Guardia dubbed City Opera "the people's opera," and the label stuck. It was always a bit of a conceit, though. There are cheap seats at the Met, and there were expensive seats at City Opera. And people dressed casual (or worse) at both places. City Opera staged a variety of works, and had singers from all over-but it specialized in American operas and young American singers. A person could "see the stars of tomorrow today."

I myself learned a lot from City Opera-a lot of repertoire. I learned new operas, of course, but also obscurities from the Baroque period and later. City Opera was the kind of company that would give you The Pearl Fishers, by Bizet. Otherwise, you hear just the famous duet, a standby at galas.

The perpetual question is, "Will New Yorkers support a second opera company?" Well, it seems they didn't support City Opera. They didn't come to the old favorites, like another Bizet opera, Carmen, and they didn't come to the esoteric or new stuff. They just didn't come, in great enough numbers. If the people want a big or biggish company in addition to the Met, and the market is free to work, they'll get it. Meanwhile, the mighty Met should be able to satisfy the operatic appetite.