Interview: Nico Muhly

By Mary H, K, Choi
October 18, 2013

The Met's youngest composer takes us behind the scenes of the first internet-era opera

October 21, 2013 marks the North American debut of Two Boys, an opera by Nico Muhly. At 32, he is the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and the only human on the Met’s roster to have also collaborated with Diplo (#plurnt) and Antony from Antony and The Johnsons. “Two Boys” follows a real-life 2001 story in which a police detective, Anne Strawson, is tasked with figuring out what happened between a pair of boys from Manchester (aged 13 and 16) that led to the younger kid getting stabbed in the heart. The events leading up to the attack transpired mostly on the Internet (cue old-school ICQ “uh oh” or else AIM creaking door), and Strawson, a hopeless luddite, is forced to rummage through yards of transcripts between the older boy—the prime suspect—and a convoluted cast of characters in various chatrooms. [SPOILER: it turns out that all the people were invented by the younger kid.] It’s a tale as much about Olds lumbering in the world of Youngs as it is about catfishing and love. The libretto was written by the American, Pulitzer-nominated playwright Craig Lucas, who also happens to have been found abandoned as a child in a car in Georgia.

Two Boys was in rehearsals when I visited Nico behind-the-scenes at the Met. We chin-wagged about what it feels like to build something on this scale, why calling it “an opera about the Internet” is myopic as hell and why the world's favorite police procedural is still Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

I’ve been seeing the subway ads for Two Boys everywhere. This size of this production is a trip. Yeah, the Met is great. Everyone’s super into it.

What does it even feel like working out of here? There’s one million people and they have four or five operas at rep at any given time so there’s so much overlapping. It’s this kind of nuts thing, so everyone has to be excellent.

The New York City opera just announced its closure due to bankruptcy. Do you feel any pressure as a prodigiously young person to “save opera”? Oh, jesus.

I mean, when I read the reviews, they either make you out to be Neo from The Matrix or are way pissed that you’re not. That’s not how stuff works, to say nothing of opera, which is this very old thing with a strange process. It’s a very slow-moving ship. And then there’s unrealistic expectations of what it can do, as if it’s going to do anything other than be an opera.

So you’re not gonna “make” opera “go viral.” [Laughs] God, no.

The slowness of the form has always struck me as bizarre, since your mind moves so quickly. Why sign on for a form that inherently takes forever to make and even longer to get out? There’s a frustration, because sometimes I’m like, I want it now, but not in a bad way. I’ll send a million emails and call a million people and type something stupid on my phone, but dispatching a blog post isn’t about enlisting hundreds of fucking people. This opera calls upon almost a thousand people, which is crazy, and it’s so big that there’s many things to perfect and fiddle with.

Do all the trillions of dials moving simultaneously make the itchy parts of your brain feel good? Yes, exactly. The attention to detail in something like this is incredible. There’s a box of Kleenex on a desk, and everyone’s standing in front of it, fussing with it and moving it this way and looking at it until it’s perfect. I love that. There’s an erotic charge in watching anyone do anything well no matter what it is. It’s extra-exciting when it happens to be scored by your music. All I’ve done is created an environment in which all of this can happen. It’s a soundtrack of people doing excellent shit.

How do you get to make something for the Met? They go, "What do you want to do?" And then I was all, "What do you want me to do?" And then they were all, "Wellllll, what do you..."

So, it’s just like any pitch meeting. Basically.

Oh, well, how many people were in the meeting? Like, three: me, [the Met's General Manager] Peter Gelb and this guy Paul.

Is Peter’s office scary? Peter’s office is very Dr. No Bond villain and very high tech. It’s real good. I blurted out this thing about these kids and BS’d my way through how it’s the oldest story. It’s not about the Internet—the Internet just becomes the delivery system for the same old drug. That’s what’s so funny to me. It’s such an opera-opera. So many operas have this plot where people pretend to be other people. Like in Cosi fan tutte, a Mozart opera, there are two sisters who are engaged to these guys and the guys dress up like Albanians and each one seduces the other’s fiancée. Basically, the women resist up to a point, and then they don’t, and the moral to that is “that’s how bitches do”—which is the title of the opera.

Basically, “#HoesBeLike.” Yes! And that suspension of disbelief where you have to be all, "Oh, I guess some women wouldn’t recognize their fiancés if they were wearing a mustache," doesn’t exist on the Internet. That operatic trope has always bugged me. Now, it’s actually happening online.

Talk to me about the real story that inspired all of this. It’s very Catfish. It really was such an early one. That this was happening between kids is also so fascinating, and that this woman solved it because of a misspelling that was consistent throughout all the characters is insane to me. The differences between these characters were orthographically indistinguishable enough that that’s what was ultimately noticeable.

It’s wild that the mastermind was 13. This kid wrote 15 different characters who all used different spellings, different speech patterns, everything. That’s amazing. This kid wrote an opera basically. Keeping track of one character is amazing, but this child had 15 in constant motion for a month. That to me was so enormously appealing. It’s a rush.

How do you show all that twistiness? You establish all the rules. And you must be consistent.

What are the rules within the world of Two Boys? Each fake person is represented by a real singer, who we see. All of the off-line relationships, like people’s interactions with their parents, belong to one musical universe in chord structure. Online, people have a completely different vocabulary.

And you deliberately resisted using electronic instruments for the online world. Everything is done with an orchestra, which makes it all so delicious. Can you imagine if the first time in the opera where we go onto the internet, you have to hear a modem? I didn’t want it to look or sound like TRON. I wanted the orchestra and chorus to represent that feeling of logging onto the early chat rooms. I wanted a million things going on at the same time to get this ecstatic sound. That was another rule, actually. The chorus isn’t townspeople. They’re all online people.

You know, I haven’t thought about it in ages, but I remember that frisson of first going online. The portent and the thrill. The scariest thing about all of this was that I wanted to represent that, but if you make the online world sound too awesome, then the offline stuff is like, Why are we watching this?

"It’s not about the Internet—the Internet just becomes the delivery system for the same old drug. That’s what’s so funny to me. It’s such an opera-opera."

Totally. Like when we have to go to Stabler’s house in SVU. Who wants to go to Stabler’s house when it’s so sad? I mean, what was up with his tedious wife? Whereas we just wanted to know about Mariska’s house because: child of rape. Also, how come we don’t ever go to B.D. Wong’s house? That’s whose house I want to be at.

Did you watch procedurals while you were working on this? Yes. I find police procedurals to be one of the very best things.

You’re not afraid that it’ll seep in and alter your thoughts? It probably does, but I welcome it.

How open source! What music were you listening to?
A whole bunch of early, early music. I mean, the 1600s.

So not, like, Wilson Phillips. No. Oh, but I totally blanked out on Yeezus when it came out, but now I think it’s fucking amazing.

Go on... It’s got all these holes in it. It’s violent, and the surface is not smooth. Plus, it’s hard and it tingles. All that digital silence and then noise. Things will repeat for too long, which I love, or else it sounds like something’s stuck. It reminds me of the beginning of the songs of Dancer in the Dark. The music at the factory. I’m crying already.

How much has this Met production changed from the world premiere of Two Boys in London? I’d say a bunch, but what it translates to is a minute of new and a minute of cuts. And we do one thing where we did a switch in events.

That sounds logistically dicey. Well, the tricky thing about changing anything in an opera is that you have the whole thing learned from memory. Which sounds really stupid to say, but opera singers have to learn things really, really, well to be able to act and sing and do it all at the same time. So you don’t want to change anything once they’re onstage.

Are there any sonic or visual parallels between Two Boys and your first, smaller opera, Dark Sisters? For Dark Sisters there were seven people onstage and 14 in the pit; this is 89 onstage, 70 in the pit. It’s a whole different operation. The thing that’s cool about Dark Sisters compared to this is that I had to write very long, traditional arias that were five or ten-minute things. This piece doesn’t have those—it’s just in motion the whole time.

How come? It’s because I’m learning. In writing the long, beautiful vocals, one learns a couple of things about how the voice works, and then you learn to deploy it faster. You don’t need eight minutes—you can just add that weight to a scene in thirty seconds.

Is that scandalous? Well, it’s a strange first opera, because it’s not like, I’m going to do everything! It’s much more specific. I find so much of it fun, but the piece itself is very austere.

How Antwerp. It’s very Ann Demeulemeester.

Interview: Nico Muhly