Introduced as “America’s greatest young composer of opera,” Nico Muhly shared a few slices of Two Boys (premiered in 2011 in the UK and debuting at The Met this October), alongside some of his other works to a captivated audience at the small Le Poisson Rouge. As a contemporary composer who has worked closely with Philip Glass and contributed to Bedroom Community (an Icelandic label founded by Valgeir Sigurðsson), Muhly also creates music outside the classical realm and has provided arrangements for some indie rock artists who should be familiar to PopMatters readers. He’s worked on Veckatimest with Grizzly Bear, Go with Jónsi, a couple of albums by Antony and the Johnsons, and even a track with Usher, amongst others.
The thought of modern opera shouldn’t sound frightening to readers. Muhly spent some time describing the process of developing and work-shopping his opera so that it reached a point when a work becomes a “real thing that people should pay money” to see deliberately. Two Boys is sung in English, so language shouldn’t be any deterrent and it’s got a less archaic subject matter involving the internet. The opera itself is about a police woman who is trying to figure out “who stabbed a little boy,” and comes across an internet subculture which the boy had gotten involved in. When Jennifer Zetlan sang, “I’m Scared for my Life”, about a hacker boy who is able to “do anything with computers” and finds scary files on spies, it was amusing to hear such a stately voice singing about something commonplace.
Yet the musical composition of Muhly’s is identifiable and he wears the influence of Glass on his sleeve performing a Glass étude early on. But he demonstrated his own minimalist style on “Étude 1”, a repetitious and haunting work with Nadia Sirota. The cyclic piece launches full on with an electronic loop before the viola joins in. As the heavy sound of the piano joins in, the piece grows a bit gloomier and later carnivalesque — like something you could hear on a merry-go-round of melodrama. The earlier “Étude 3” was part eerie, part maddening, and gripped the audience.
In the latter half of his show, Muhly invited his fellow Vermonter and friend Sam Amidon out for a couple of pieces, mentioning that Amidon has never written a note of music in his life. Amidon channeled traditional country and bluesy tunes with Muhly’s piano accompaniment. “Wild Bill Jones” sounded excellent but the following song suffered because it sounded way wearier than the youthful appearance of Amidon’s could warrant. On their third song, Amidon brought out his banjo and then for the final song, “Pretty Saro”, Sirota joined in again. The switchover to the roots music was a semi-unwelcome surprise for the evening, but it was still enjoyable, adding to the casualness of the event (especially considering that Muhly and some of his companions had just arrived from London following some performances that day).
What followed was an early piece of Muhly’s, called “Honest Music”, featuring two “dueling violinists” who had put together the new arrangement that day. Unfortunately, the work wasn’t as gripping as a duel might sound even though each of the ladies physically attempted to add drama with their posturing and movements.
The final work was another snippet from Two Boys entitled “I’m Only Sixteen”, but this time with a male vocalist. The lyrics seemed equally wry and offbeat, yet Appleby’s tenor gave him a more resoundingly confident presence than any “real” 16-year-old should have. Though only two songs from Two Boys were revealed, Muhly has created something worth buzzing about.
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Get more information about Two Boys on the Metropolitan Opera’s page. As it had already been performed, across the pond as they say, some reviews are in, with The New York Times calling the original, “serious and radiant, Two Boys is a landmark in the career of an important artist”. But they’ve also discovered that the work will become “more dramatically effective” when it arrives at The Met.
Video from same performance is below.
Early show setlist (in progress):
“Twelfth Étude ” (Philip Glass)
“Étude 3” w/ Nadia Sirota
“Am I in Your Light” from Doctor Atomic w/ Sirota and Jennifer Zetlan
“Last Words” w/ Zeltan
“Empty House” w/ Zeltan
“Étude 1” w/ Sirota
“Wild Bill Jones” w/ Sam Amidon
[2x w/ Amidon]
“Pretty Saro” w/ Amidon and Sirota
“Honest Music” w/ Angela & Jennifer Chun
“I’m Only Sixteen” w/ Paul Appleby and Sirota