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"U there??" - Thoughts about "Two Boys"

Published on
October 28

             You are reading this blog post on the Internet. With a few clicks of my mouse, my words have been posted online, where they can be read by whoever comes to this page. Of course, this is nothing new to any of us. The Internet has become an expected, natural, real part of our lives; we take it very much for granted. Yet as recently as 2001, the Internet was still a new and unexplored world, full of people, possibilities and perils that were not fully understood.

            This is the setting of “Two Boys,” a new opera with music by Nico Muhly and a libretto by Craig Lucas currently having its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. This is Muhly’s first large-scale opera, and at 32 years old, he is the youngest composer ever commissioned by the world-famous opera house. The opera has been widely advertised to a diverse audience (I haven’t heard of any other opera being advertised during commercial breaks of “The Walking Dead”) and is currently receiving very mixed reviews. To spoil the ending of my own review, I am still not sure what I think of this bizarre, unique production. The opera tells the story of Brian, a 16-year-old boy who is the only suspect in the stabbing of a 13-year-old boy, Jake. As Detective Anne Strawson questions Brian, he responds by telling a story of how he met Jake online in a chat-room. His outrageous story includes a whole cast of online characters: a beautiful girl, a mysterious spy, a deranged gardener/assassin. Though Anne finds his story unbelievable, she soon finds the transcripts of his online chats and discovers that Brian has been telling the truth. The case becomes far more complicated as Anne tries to figure out how this web of Internet intrigue led to a gruesome real-life act of violence.

            It is hard to know where to start with my description because one of the greatest strengths of the opera is how well each component works with the others. Wagner famously described opera as a “gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total art form.” A good opera does not just have good music: the music must work with the libretto, the direction, the set, the costumes, all the other components of the drama to create a work that utilizes many different types of art in the telling of one story. The story of “Two Boys” revolves around the world of the Internet, particularly its chat rooms, full of lonely people looking for some surrogate for real human connection. On stage, we literally see and hear what it is like inside a chat room. A huge chorus of people, staring at luminous screens, sings repeated shifting fragments of melody to create a shimmering cacophony of sound. The fragments of text (literally written in text-speak – “U there?”, “Can I c u?”, “Want 2 go private?!”) echo over and over, constantly being repeated in other stories besides the one Brian is entangled in. The chorus is dressed in muted gray and blue tones: they are faceless (especially from my seat in the highest balcony!), shadowy specters of people hiding their true selves behind their avatars. And of course, incredible projections of chat room screens, web cams, floating away and breaking down into visions of electronic signals that ultimately create this new world. It is a truly staggering effect, a disturbing but captivating portrayal of the sea of humanity just beginning to understand the Internet and discover it’s alluring and dangerous uses. The Internet is a sea of inhuman humanity, where anonymous people feel free to express their darkest thoughts and desires without revealing their identities. It is a world of contradictions consistently changing and being reinterpreted: feelings of love changing to selfish acts of lust, feelings of friendship and trust changing to pain, feelings of connection dissolving away to ultimate loneliness. 

            Although there are several beautiful and haunting moments, such as the one I attempted to describe above, unfortunately there are other elements of the opera that get in its own way. The action of the opera is slow to get started, and Detective Strawson’s character (though sung beautifully and powerfully by Alice Coote) seems underdeveloped: though we get hints of her rich backstory, she seems more of a framing device for the true content of the opera. The story is further interrupted by several interludes, depicting others using the internet for selfish, sexual or sadistic purposes of their own. While I suppose these help deepen and contextualize Brian’s story in a world of similar ones, for me they seemed more like confusing and unexplained tangents. When Detective Strawson discovers the real truth underlying Brian’s story, it is a fairly unsurprising revelation. For Brian, his chats provide him with a fantastical escape into a dangerous and exciting world that he both terrifies him and fulfils him. But the way the narrative unfolds causes this world to unravel slowly, inevitably, and predictably. By the time Detective Strawson is beginning to believe that Brian’s story is true, we are already beginning to understand the falsities that lie beneath.  

            Muhly’s score (a unique operatic voice heavily inspired by minimalist composers) has been perhaps the most difficult component of the opera for me to process. Like the set, the music is constantly shifting and transforming. Chords and emotions change subtly, as characters weave seamlessly between longer melodic lines and shorter fragments of conversation. During scenes in the “real world” with Detective Strawson, the music helped create a feeling of isolation. Though the detective pities the people seemingly wasting their lives alone on their computers, she too is living a lonely, empty life in many ways. Many of these sections drag on, however, and the first act felt especially slow to start moving. During Brian’s online chats with the various people he meets, however, the music becomes more exciting, almost cinematic in its support of the action. Though the conversations are ridiculous and unbelievable, the music gives them credence. You are drawn into this artificial world, you believe in it as Brian does, because it is so much more engaging than the musical world you have been accustomed to. The score of an opera is traditionally the most important aspect of the “gesamtkunstwerk.” However, I do not feel this is the case for “Two Boys.” While the music effectively supports the story and the libretto, I am not sure how well it would stand on its own. Perhaps it is not meant to.

            I left “Two Boys” of two minds: the story was ridiculous and confusing, yet strangely captivating; the music was repetitive and unmemorable, yet fragments of it are still floating around my head. As I said at the beginning, I am still not sure exactly what to make of this production. I am sure that I would like to see it again, however. Now that I have been introduced to this new world, of possibilities and perils, I, like Detective Strawson, feel compelled to try and make sense of it; I want to continue exploring this world and see if any truths lie in its core.  

Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera (metoperafamily.org)