An Opera That Takes On The Internet

by nancytrinh

Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys recently premiered at the Met and will be running until November 14th. The plot is closely based on a real account of a 14-year-old British boy (referred to as John) who was accused of inciting his own murder in 2003. John created multiple identities on an internet chatroom and weaved a world of spies, rape, love, and murder in order to get 16-year-old Mark to stab him repeatedly with a knife in an alley. (A report on this can be found here: http://www.vanityfair.com/ontheweb/features/2005/02/bachrach200502)

Robinson Meyer wrote a detailed review of the opera on The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/finally-an-art-form-that-gets-the-internet-opera/281012/), that I highly recommend reading. Meyer details how Fifty Nine Productions’ principal designers and directors, Mark Grimmer and Leo Warner, addresses the challenge of staging an opera that revolves mainly around conversations on the internet. The protagonist, Mark, sits at his laptop on one end of the stage, while the imaginary characters whom Mark is conversing with appears on the other end. Six towers on the stage act as surfaces on which to project “live feeds” of the chat windows, and helixes and plasma and other images to evoke the feeling of the web.

Nico Muhly uses music to approach the challenge. He borrows a technique from Verdi’s Rigoletto, in which the choir is set off-stage and is instructed to sing “ooo” at certain moments. Muhly remarks, “It creates a sense of size that you can’t even see, where you already have a huge space, like the Met stage, and then there’s a hint that it’s even bigger, but you don’t know how big—it’s just a vastness.”

Muhly also has the choir sing bits and pieces of different things at different times and then the same thing at the same time, to create a “chattering…wild, electronic effect.” Muhly says that, harmonically, one chattering section consists “basically” of an A-flat major chord. “The choir acts as…almost like a mist of sound. So it’s not the primary voice, and in fact, they’re offstage but while people are talking about other things, you are aware suddenly that there’s this kind of chatter. And you can’t tell what anyone’s saying and you’re not meant to.”

Here is a short video that the Met released on Two Boys: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C80eJCaNedY

The true story on which this opera is based was haunting and dramatic in itself. To me, Two Boys is a bold move and a great example of modern opera that addresses uniquely 21st century issues.

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