‘Two Boys’ composer Nico Muhly digs online hoaxes, ‘Law & Order: SVU’
NEW YORK — If classical music composer Nico Muhly had his way, his occupation would to the average person seem about as exotic as being a plumber.
“I want it to feel the same relationship you’d have with your local butcher or neighborhood fishmonger. It would be like the opening scene of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ where it’s like, ‘There’s the composer!’” Muhly says at the Metropolitan Opera House, where he just made his debut with “Two Boys,” an opera about Internet deception.
At just 32, Muhly has already established himself as one of the leading classical musicians of his generation. A precocious talent who began working for Philip Glass when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University, he has since collaborated with the likes of Björk and Antony and the Johnsons.
“Two Boys,” more than six years in the making, made him the youngest composer to have an opera commissioned by the venerable Met, and its subject, a true crime story involving a mind-bendingly bizarre online hoax, is very much of the moment.
The project has attracted a flurry of press attention from outlets that rarely dabble in high culture, such as Reddit and Buzzfeed. Commercials for “Two Boys” have also popped up during AMC’s zombie drama “The Walking Dead,” a top hit with younger viewers.
For a medium that’s sometimes seen as too elite, Muhly is one of its bright hopes, even if he’d prefer not to think of it that way.
“This larger narrative of ‘what’s the future of the art form?’ — that stuff is so distracting to composers,” says Muhly, whose avant-garde hairstyle and all-black wardrobe belie his boisterous sense of humor. “The minute you start thinking about this meta structure of what’s happening to opera, you lose focus of what’s important, which is writing music.”
“Two Boys’” journey to the stage began in 2007, when Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and Paul Cremo, director of commissioning programs, met with Muhly, then 25, to discuss the possibility of writing a piece for the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program.
Muhly pitched an idea based on the strange but true tale of an English teen who engineered his own execution using an elaborate online ruse. Muhly, as it turns out, is something of a hoax aficionado, obsessed by the serial French impostor Frédéric Bourdin and by Manti Te’o, the football player whose virtual relationship with a fictional woman was exposed in January.
For Muhly, who maintains an active blog and Twitter account, falling prey to such a plot isn’t unthinkable. “I have a really good friend, and we speak online at least twice a day, and we speak in person maybe twice a year, and he lives a mile from me,” he says, tapping away on the keyboard in front of him. “Those relationships are totally normal, but you see the possibility of those things going quite vertiginously off piste.”
Muhly, a fan of “Law & Order: SVU,” structured the story as a procedural, with Alice Coote playing a Luddite detective who struggles to unravel the connection between Brian (Paul Appleby), a sexually confused 16-year-old, and a series of false online identities created by a younger boy, each represented in “Two Boys” by a different singer.
As Muhly is keen to point out, though the subject matter is contemporary, the themes of identity and deceit are as old as opera itself.
“What makes Nico extraordinary is he has found an original voice and he is at the same time writing music that really connects emotionally. That is, I think, very rare for a composer of large-scale classical works. He’s original without being contrived,” says Gelb.
At the initial meeting with Muhly, Cremo suggested screenwriter and playwright Craig Lucas (“The Dying Gaul,” “Longtime Companion”) write the libretto. He just so happened to be flying in to the city that day and, within six hours, he and Muhly were brainstorming over lunch. Within six months, they had a complete draft of the project that would become “Two Boys.”
This being opera, however, it took five more years for “Two Boys” to make it to the Met’s stage, during which time he also wrote another opera, “Dark Sisters,” about Mormon polygamists. (“Two Boys” is the first of the operas commissioned through the program to make it through the arduous development process.)
After a series of workshops in New York, a production of “Two Boys” was staged at the English National Opera in 2011 and received mixed reviews. The main problem, according to the critics, was in the storytelling, something that Muhly acknowledges was a challenge to get just right.
“The first time I heard it through it was like ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’; it was recognizable objects but just the wrong proportion,” says Muhly, a master of the unexpected metaphor. “You basically have to synchronize Google calendars between the drama of the thing and the musical pacing.”
Before moving “Two Boys” to New York, Muhly rearranged the narrative so that it would unfold in a more straightforward chronological way, and, in another page from the “SVU” playbook, filled out the back story of Coote’s detective figure.
“I wrote this piece in a series of very small places — at my apartment, at my friend’s house,” says Muhly, who lives in Chinatown with his longtime boyfriend, a communications strategist, and often travels to Iceland, where he is part of the music collective Bedroom Community.
“Then all of a sudden you’re here [at the Met] and you see like six guys moving these towers onstage and you think, ‘My God, somehow I’ve caused this to happen.’”
“Two Boys” has drawn a younger, hip demographic to the opera. On a recent Friday night the Met’s cantilevered staircases teemed not with Park Avenue dowagers but with scruffy Brooklynites who’d ventured well outside their geographical comfort zone.
Of course, whether they’ll come back for some Puccini or whether “Two Boys” will endure after it ends its run on Nov. 14 remains to be seen. Either way, the project was a worthwhile risk, says Gelb.
“We have to be able to expand the repertory either by discovering previously unknown gems or, more importantly, through supporting new work.”’
Muhly’s Met debut is just one highlight in what’s been a supremely busy fall for the composer, who also scored the recently released film “Kill Your Darlings” and created the music for the Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” Later this month, he’ll have the U.S. premiere of “My Days,” a concert for viols and voices, at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan.
And there is little rest for the weary: In January at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with pianist Emanuel Ax and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, will perform a newly commissioned song cycle by Muhly. He also continues his work with L.A. Dance Project, which he co-founded last year with choreographer Benjamin Millepied.
After a few minutes in Muhly’s presence it is not hard to imagine how he maintains such a feverish pace. A wildly associative thinker with an omnivorous, restless intelligence and an ebullience barely enhanced by caffeine, he finds inspiration lurking in unlikely places. (Current fixations include ravioli-making videos on YouTube and the scourge of self-checkout machines.)
Muhly keeps idea folders for his various projects, which he crams with ephemera from the Web, sketches and notes.
“You sort of set it aside and allow it to accumulate dust and agitation, and it makes a pearl around itself,” he says. Once the structure of a piece is in place, the rest, according to Muhly, “is mechanical. I just wake up and do it.”
Muhly says his level-headed approach can be disappointing to outsiders with romantic notions of the creative process — for example, a filmmaker who scrapped the idea of a documentary about him because she found his method “boring.”
“I’m literally just sitting at my desk making a cup of coffee. I think she expected I would strip naked and be Jackson Pollacking all over my apartment,” he says. “It’s a series of structured thought and some improvisation. It’s a recipe plus freestyle, and it’s not much more complicated than that.”
And with that Muhly returns, fully clothed, to work.
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