For one night, at least, the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center might have been the hippest venue in New York, thanks to last night's American premiere of Two Boys, the opera by the gifted young composer Nico Muhly.
Muhly -- who joins us later this week on Soundcheck -- has a resume that straddles both the classical and rock worlds; his collaborators have ranged from the New York Philharmonic to Bjork to The National. So the crowd at the Met was noticeably different from your average night at the opera. The writers and critics were all out, but so too were LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, and a fair representation of New York's still-vibrant "downtown" scene, including David T. Little, drummer and leader of the new music band Newspeak, and himself part of the commissioning program that produced Two Boys for the Met.
The lobby, in other words, was full of musical worlds colliding, which was great to see.
As for the opera itself, Two Boys is based, closely, on a real-life case in England in 2001, at a time when the "real" and "virtual" worlds were colliding. Basically, two teenage boys meet online, and the slightly older one ends up stabbing the younger one in the heart. Spoiler alert: There's no need for you to worry about the plot summary; opera works best if you know the story in advance. And in Two Boys particularly, the story is so twisted and the narrative so full of jumps between past and present that it's best if you know the bare bones, at least.
So you have one kid stabbed and dying, and another accused of doing the deed. The accused teen tells the detective a crazy tale of a group of people in a chat room leading him down the path to his present trouble. The detective, who has issues of her own, naturally doesn't believe him. But when the transcripts of his online chats surface, she realizes he is telling the truth.
The story takes a further, chilling twist when she finally traces all of those online voices back to a single person: the young victim. Essentially, he has goaded his older friend into killing him.
The opera is full of extraordinary digital stage effects, including surveillance video and onstage use of a laptop camera; and the printed program warns patrons about the often frank sexual language and profanity. How often do you think the Met's had to do that?
But of course people will want to know about the music, and Muhly's choral writing -- which is a strength of his since I first hosted a concert of his music eight years ago, when he was 24 and still a student -- is the best part of a dark, dramatic and intense score. The individual lines are not the old-fashioned singalong arias of Italian opera, but are closer to the "sung speech" you find in the operas of Leos Janacek. Based on the rhythms of English, there is little here to whistle when you leave. But then, that's not the point. The second of the two acts builds up a head of steam and ratchets up the tension and drama so effectively that the revelation of what's really been going on still hits like an unexpected blow.
The soloists often struggled to project over the orchestra, and much of their music is more declamation than conventional melody. So it's hard to imagine just listening to, say, a CD recording of Two Boys. On the other hand, the orchestral writing was brilliant, David Robertson's conducting was energetic and committed, and the always-reliable Met chorus handled Nico Muhly's electronic-inspired writing with aplomb.
A DVD release down the road might be just the thing. Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the opera, Muhly received a thunderous ovation that couldn't possibly have been just the opera newbies in the crowd.
Watch an intimate performance from Nico Muhly and friends performing selections of Two Boys and other works recorded live by Q2 and NPR Music at New York's (le)Poisson Rouge in May 2013.