The main event Thursday evening was not a part of Performa 13. Instead, the evening saw my virgin visit to the Metropolitan Opera to take in the final night of composer (and frequent Cincinnati visitor) Nico Muhly's Two Boys. Muhly became the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Met when they asked him to create a new work in 2006. Having a run in 2011 in London in a co-production with English National Opera, Two Boys finally made its American debut last month.
Based on true events in Manchester, England, 10 years ago, the story centers on a seemingly normal 16-year-old boy and his involvement in a confusing web of chat room relationships that ultimately lead to him stabbing and nearly killing a 13-year-old boy. It was, shall we say, not your standard opera fare. While I've not been to many an opera in my life thus far, I don't imagine there have been many to have featured projected chat acronyms and two separate instances of onstage masturbation. But on to the show.
The story of Two Boys is a complicated one, without question. A young boy has been stabbed, his friend and the only witness, Brian, is the key suspect, and an over-worked and under-appreciated police detective is tasked with putting the pieces together in a case she never wanted to take. As we begin to learn more about Brian, we are shown a world of chat room conversations and desperate boys seeking connections that mean something. By the end, we understand that the young boy pretended to be three different people in various roles and chats with Brian, concocting an insanely complex story before, essentially, convincing Brian to stab him while he would repeat, “I love you, bro” to the dying boy. Everyone has access to a search engine, so I'll let you look up the story on your own...
A certain triumph for Two Boys is the set design and realization of an online world on a physical stage. Multiple large-scale projections land upon movable walls that dance across the stage at various depths. Frequently these walls become transparent and reveal young people inside, half-illuminated by laptop screens. The multimedia execution inspired and amazed, serving to highlight the production's digital world concept and add a new and exciting layer to a traditional performance form.
Knowing Muhly's work rather well, and having enjoyed the chance to see him twice in Cincinnati in the past 18 months as part of MusicNOW and Tatiana Berman's Constella Festival, I was eager to hear what he had done for Two Boys. I was somewhat surprised — though pleased — to find that this work did not veer too far from his compositional oeuvre; dark with intricate rhythms, the score never threatens to take complete control of the production, while the influence of modern composers like Benjamin Britten and Meredith Monk, as he acknowledged in the program notes, could be felt throughout. For me, the standout compositional moments came in the form of choral scenes performed by the company carrying laptops in their hands, faces lit and animated by the screens, feeling like a reference to the pull of the digital world and the countless hours young people like Brian spend seeking something of meaning in an environment of empty promises. Multi-layered lines repeating chat room requests and responses, the voices build to a disorienting swirl. In these moments, the marriage of precocity, tradition, and progressivism felt too immense to not hold your breath.