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Loosely inspired by a true case that happened in the North of England a few years ago, Nico Muhly’s opera enters the secret world of the teenage bedroom and explores on the realities and risks of living our lives online. A teenage boy is fatally stabbed. Another boy is caught on CCTV leaving the scene. An open-and-shut-case, it would seem. But, as the Detective Inspector Anne Strawson investigates the older boy’s story, she uncovers a bizarre nexus of chatroom meetings, false identities, fictitious spy rings and raunchy cybersex, leading to just one conclusion: it wasn’t so much murder as suicide by internet.
ANNE, a detective, 50’s: Alto
BRIAN, 16: Tenor
REBECCA, 18: Soprano
BOY, 12: Boy Soprano
FIONA, 35, a spy: Mezzo-Soprano
JAKE, 15: Baritone
PETER, 28: Bass
BRIAN'S MOTHER: Mezzo-Soprano
BRIAN'S FATHER: Bass
WOMAN (Jake’s Mother): Mezzo-Soprano
MARK FOLEY, Representative from Florida: Tenor
CONGRESSIONAL PAGE: Tenor
LORI DREW: Soprano
MEGAN MEIERMegan Meier: Soprano
PRECENTOR OF THE CHURCH: Tenor
Chorus of internet users, churchgoers, shoppers, citizens.
In an English industrial city, Detective Sargeant Anne Strawson is stumped by the evidence uncovered in her investigation of a confounding crime involving the internet, the first such she’s encountered. She reviews the events. Jake, 14, has been stabbed in the heart and remains comatose. Brian, 16, stands accused but he maintains his innocence, regaling Anne with a wild narrative, baldly claiming to have been ensnared online in a web of outrageous and melodramatic characters including wealthy, beautiful Rebecca, 18, as well as her younger brother, Jake, their “Aunt Fiona,” a professional spy, and Peter, their mentally deranged gardener and private assassin in Fiona’s employ. Anne pushes for Brian to drop these lies and confess, but he vehemently defends his tortured tale. Losing patience, Anne requisitions the boy’s computer from his clueless parents and has an assistant begin legal procedures to obtain transcripts of Brian’s online chats in order to put an end to the nonsense.
Meanwhile, at home with her invalid mother, Anne reviews the security tape from the shopping centre where the stabbing occurred. There is no evidence of another assailant. When Anne confronts Brian with this, he startles her by correctly stating that she understands nothing about the world of the internet not to mention the poetic genius immanent therein. Brian tells her how deeply he loved Rebecca, how agonized and shattered he was when he learned of her rape and murder at the hands of Peter. Brian believes she was killed for having uncovered a high-level spy ring with the aid of her highly computer-savvy brother.
Anne visits Jake’s mother in hospital where she stands at her son’s bedside; Anne asks if Jake has a sister named Rebecca. Indeed she does and the girl is currently missing. Anne asks if Jake has an Aunt Fiona. That he does. When Anne’s colleague presents her with the transcripts from Brian’s computer, Anne is further astonished to learn that every word of Brian’s testimony is corroborated there in online chats with Rebecca, Jake, Aunt Fiona and Peter. Anne spends the night in her office, trying to make sense out of this impossible tangle. Her office soon crowds with the figures from the story.
Next morning Anne asks her assistant to contact MI5 and locate Fiona and to check the morgues for an unclaimed body of an adolescent girl. Anne apologizes to Brian for not believing him and asks to be shown a chatroom. When Brian concurs, Anne begins to hear the music that has so intoxicated him. She makes him finish his testimony, in which Brian is approached online by both Fiona and Peter. When Jake shows up at Brian’s home, seeking refuge, Brian takes the younger boy in. During the night they have sex. Fiona then offers Brian a position within MI5 along with a large sum of money if he will assassinate Jake. At first Brian refuses. Before he can explain to Anne why he changed his mind, Anne realizes she has left her ailing mother alone since the day before. She rushes out of the interview and finds her mother sleeping on the couch. Anne breaks down; she is terrified she will die alone without ever having been truly known by another. Anne’s mother suggests she should lose some weight, wear nicer clothes and put on some decent make-up. Life is a masquerade! This comment causes Anne to see the missing piece of the puzzle in the case she is investigating. Rushing back to the office, she finds the needed evidence to prove her case—knowing now that Jake created all of the online characters, successfully convincing Brian of the existence of Rebecca, Fiona, Peter, and thereby arranging his own suicide. Anne finds a vision of herself in the boy’s desire to be known and remembered by someone he loves.