Interviewed back in 1990, Philip Glass was grumbling – quibbling, as he put it – with the presence of supertitles at an English language performance of Janacek’s House of the Dead. “I thought I was looking at the titles more than I needed to,” he averred. “The fact that they were there inevitably drew my eye to the top of the stage.”
For several years Nico Muhly worked as Glass’s assistant, abetting his orchestrations, sometimes acting as keyboardist or conductor at performances of his works. You can see him in Scott Hicks’s (2007) documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, aged just 26 and bragging about how he manages to sneak his own ideas into his mentor’s work. Since then he’s released three albums of his own compositions, and worked with Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons and the Britten Sinfonia.
And now he has composed his first opera – perhaps the first opera which quite provocatively, self-reflexively draws attention to its own supertitles, even burying a clue to its central mystery in them. In the many scenes ‘located’ in the cyberspace of an internet chatroom, the titles dance across their little LCD screen in abbreviated LOLspeak, distributed about its frame like a Mallarmé poem. An avid Twitter user himself, Muhly successfully evokes the utopian glow of the internet in scenes such as the act two opener (“It’s real!”), even in the midst of an otherwise dark and disturbing story of attempted murder that takes its structure from a film noir detective story.
This is the first opera of the information age, and the great grey flats of the Coliseum’s stage are aflood with CCTV footage and mocked-up internet screen grabs. Paradoxically, however, for a work about the world wide web, its story remains determinedly local, tied to a single town, and the bizarre online relationship that develops between the two local boys of the title. It’s a shame, nonetheless, that these great grey moving stage flats are practically the limit of the scenographer’s imagination. The ENO is capable of doing extraordinary feats of engineering onstage, building sets that loom up and burst out of the stage, inspiring awe in its crowds. It’s a shame too because there’s every chance that this will be more than just Nico Muhly’s first opera – probably a certain audience will be coming to an opera house for the first time, attracted by Muhly’s name, his reputation in the pop world, and will find a stage scarcely more impressive than at most provincial theatres.
Nonetheless, Muhly makes his own aural scenery most effectively. The orchestra is never less than interesting, recalling John Adams at his Dr Atomic best. So powerful is the instrumentation, however, that it tends to overwhelm the voices. And herein lies the crux of the problem: Muhly has not yet really got the hang of scoring his own language and the dialogue is frequently somewhat stilted and unnatural sounding, caught between a stab at Britten-esque naturalism and a repressed longing for flights of lyrical arioso that leads to one or two particularly awkward melismas. Muhly never attains the directness and simplicity in English dialogue of his idol, Benjamin Britten – but then neither did Britten with his first opera, Paul Bunyan, and this does a lot better than that.
The vocal music is at its best in the choral scenes, where the ENO choir takes on the hectoring voice of the boy’s obscene superego (“Stop fucking talking!” “Everybody hates you!”), and it is here that he most resembles Philip Glass. But whereas Glass always claimed that he only became an opera composer “by accident,” Muhly clearly loves the theatre and classical operatic form, even as he displays his impatience with it (the whole work is over in little more two hours, and the number of scene changes will keep the mind of any ADHD sufferer from straying). For all the faults of Two Boys, Muhly – and librettist Craig Lucas – should be congratulated for their determination to prove that opera remains a modern art form which can speak eloquently and intelligently about contemporary issues. With a stylistic and generic eclecticism that takes in soap opera and techno thriller, liturgical music and modernism, this is a most un-Wagnerian opera which remains decidedly faithful to Wagner’s manifesto for opera as drama.