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Nico Muhly

Publisher: Chester Music

Two Boys (2010),
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater Opera/Music Theater Commissions Program.
Work Notes
Opera in two acts
Text Writer
Craig Lucas
St. Rose Music Publishing
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Year Composed
1 Hour 30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Treble, 3 sopranos, 3 mezzos, alto, 4 tenors, baritone, 2 basses
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Programme Note
Nico Muhly Two Boys (2010),
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.

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   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

Other Characters
   BRIAN'S MOTHER: Mezzo-Soprano
   WOMAN (Jake’s Mother): Mezzo-Soprano
   MARK FOLEY, Representative from Florida: Tenor
   LORI DREW: Soprano
   MEGAN MEIER: Soprano

Chorus of internet users, churchgoers, shoppers, citizens.


Act I

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.

Act II

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.


Preview the score

Nico Muhly must be the flavour of the month-maybe the year-among quasi-modern composers. At 30 he seems preposterously prolific, a factotum as busy as Figaro, and something of a stylistic chameleon. His big opera, Two Boys, had its…premiere at the ENO in June. The Met’s super-impresario says he considered it just an out-of-town tryout for an upcoming, presumably improved, replica at Lincoln Center.
Martin Bernheimer, Opera,01/01/2012
Two boys is an ambitious, elaborate and unconventional new opera.
Andrew Porter, Opera,01/09/2011
Two Boys is a timely, touching screen grab of a modern tragedy. Muhly's best invention is reserved for the chorus and its orchestral accompaniment. There are some tremendous tuttis, not least the concluding passacaglia, and it is a stroke of inspiration to deploy the massed voices as an image of the world wide web itself.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,03/07/2011
The New York-based Muhly is equally fluent in the TV tropes of “Law and Order” and the musical tropes of Benjamin Britten, and “Two Boys” is a grand homage to both…Playwright Craig Lucas’s libretto deftly conveys the nuances of language in instant messaging and real-world conversation. “Two Boys”…quickly picked up steam, and Muhly’s talents were fully evident by the first entrance of the ENO’s enchanting chorus. In several choral numbers, easily the best parts of the opera, Muhly transformed the unrelenting buzz of the Internet into a kind of ecstatic glossolalia, in which hundreds of words are layered atop each other to create a tableau of chanted gibberish (a technique already known to anyone familiar with the composer’s album Mothertongue)…Muhly composed several tender, brief, solo arias for the principal characters, and engaging dialogues both online and off...Muhly’s score alternates between clear, pulsating lines and submerged menace...“Two Boys” is an impressive freshman opera and deserves its place at the Met in the 2013-14 season.
William Robin, The Washington Post,27/06/2011
…there is much to admire in the score. The used in post-minimalist fashion. It doesn’t move with a mechanical pulse, but scales, arpeggios and repeated zigzagging figurations are its motor…solo vocal lines are fluent and expressive. The orchestration is imaginatively coloured. There are some shimmeringly ecstatic choruses, evoking the magic of the worldwide web…and a brief homage to the Anglican liturgy (Muhly was a cathedral choirboy). It’s not hard to listen to.
Rupert Christiansen, Daily Telegraph,27/06/2011
…it concludes with one of Muhly’s shimmering, quasi-ritualistic choruses of cyberspace chatter, while the ingenious projections…beguilingly visualise the internet as a twinkling cosmological constellation. Muhly cloaks this seedy story in surprisingly lush harmonies and mostly string-saturated textures…there’s no denying the craftsmanship of the score.
Richard Morrison, The Times,27/06/2011
...the aleatoric choral writing depict[s] the cyber-babble of the chatrooms; the multi-layered chorus with which the work ends; or some of the wonderfully voiced orchestral textures, such as the poignant string lines that underpin the aria in which Brian attempts to describe the importance of the internet in his life[,] that’s when the Muhly you recognise from previous orchestral and vocal works snaps into focus…
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,27/06/2011
For those who believe opera should engage with contemporary issues, Muhly’s work, to a libretto by Craig Lucas, ticks most of the boxes…The orchestration is often imaginative and it’s true that the music harmonises well with the drama in all its multi-faceted fluidity.
Barry Millington, Evening Standard,27/06/2011
The most surprising thing about Two Boys is the consonance and quiet sensuality of the score. Many words spring to mind: elegiac, mournful, poetic, melismatic - a digital age score without digitalisms, without electronics, actual or simulated, without amplification. And it's clear, so clear - but never clinical - in word and gesture and thought: a preposterous tale of intrigue and attempted murder (or is it?) born of false identities and fiction masquerading as fact. Opera was ever thus. But it's just gone viral. Interestingly enough - and maybe this accounts for its very particular quality - its composer, Nico Muhly, and librettist, Craig Lucas (exactly twice Muhly's age), come to the world of cyberspace from different, and you might even say opposing, perspectives. For Lucas this is a mystical new frontier: he enters it as does his central character, Detective Inspector Anne Strawson (the excellent Susan Bickley in Prime Suspect mode) as one who must find his bearings. But for Muhly this is a world he plainly inhabits, a child of cyberspace, if you like, his music undulating and pulsing through a universe of connecting souls. Bartlett Sher's beautiful staging conveys a sea of faces illuminated by open laptops but the collective voices are heard in churchy polyphonies, albeit "digitalised" through haunting, aleatoric-like overlappings and minglings. You can lose yourself in these choruses, just as you can lose yourself - or your identity - in cyberspace. Muhly's musical identity suggests a love-child of John Adams and Britten, a developing nose for drama (this is his first opera), a grateful understanding of voices, and gamelan gongs which in a nod to Britten's Death in Venice point up the other-worldly mystique of cyberspace - or as Craig Lucas would have it in his spare and lean and smart libretto "a netherworld of cheerless cheer". What a great line. Sher's staging is wonderfully amorphous and yet effortlessly focused, the grey surfaces of Michael Yeargan's sliding towers and panels bathed in amazing cyber graphics from 59 Productions. And as real identities are chillingly revealed, how telling that it should be an innocent remark from the pre-internet generation - namely Detective Strawson's mother - that unlocks the mystery. That revelation brings Muhly's masterstroke and a final polyphony which unites us all in a desire not to go "unsung" from this world. This last five minutes alone make for an auspicious operatic debut.
Edward Seckerson, The Independent ,25/06/2011
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