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'Two Boys' composer Nico Muhly digs online hoaxes, 'Law & Order: SVU'

Nico Muhly, whose 'Two Boys' is at Metropolitan Opera in New York, is matter of fact about his work and thinks you should be too.

November 10, 2013|By Meredith Blake
  • Nico Muhly is the composer of the opera "Two Boys."
Nico Muhly is the composer of the opera "Two Boys." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — If classical music composer Nico Muhly had his way, his occupation would to the average person seem about as exotic as being a plumber.

"I want it to feel the same relationship you'd have with your local butcher or neighborhood fishmonger. It would be like the opening scene of 'Beauty and the Beast' where it's like, 'There's the composer!'" Muhly says at the Metropolitan Opera House, where he just made his debut with "Two Boys," an opera about Internet deception.

At just 32, Muhly has already established himself as one of the leading classical musicians of his generation. A precocious talent who began working for Philip Glass when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University, he has since collaborated with the likes of Björk and Antony and the Johnsons.

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"Two Boys," more than six years in the making, made him the youngest composer to have an opera commissioned by the venerable Met, and its subject, a true crime story involving a mind-bendingly bizarre online hoax, is very much of the moment.

The project has attracted a flurry of press attention from outlets that rarely dabble in high culture, such as Reddit and Buzzfeed. Commercials for "Two Boys" have also popped up during AMC's zombie drama "The Walking Dead," a top hit with younger viewers.

For a medium that's sometimes seen as too elite, Muhly is one of its bright hopes, even if he'd prefer not to think of it that way.

"This larger narrative of 'what's the future of the art form?' — that stuff is so distracting to composers," says Muhly, whose avant-garde hairstyle and all-black wardrobe belie his boisterous sense of humor. "The minute you start thinking about this meta structure of what's happening to opera, you lose focus of what's important, which is writing music."

"Two Boys'" journey to the stage began in 2007, when Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and Paul Cremo, director of commissioning programs, met with Muhly, then 25, to discuss the possibility of writing a piece for the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program.

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Muhly pitched an idea based on the strange but true tale of an English teen who engineered his own execution using an elaborate online ruse. Muhly, as it turns out, is something of a hoax aficionado, obsessed by the serial French impostor Frédéric Bourdin and by Manti Te'o, the football player whose virtual relationship with a fictional woman was exposed in January.

For Muhly, who maintains an active blog and Twitter account, falling prey to such a plot isn't unthinkable. "I have a really good friend, and we speak online at least twice a day, and we speak in person maybe twice a year, and he lives a mile from me," he says, tapping away on the keyboard in front of him. "Those relationships are totally normal, but you see the possibility of those things going quite vertiginously off piste."

Muhly, a fan of "Law & Order: SVU," structured the story as a procedural, with Alice Coote playing a Luddite detective who struggles to unravel the connection between Brian (Paul Appleby), a sexually confused 16-year-old, and a series of false online identities created by a younger boy, each represented in "Two Boys" by a different singer.

As Muhly is keen to point out, though the subject matter is contemporary, the themes of identity and deceit are as old as opera itself.

"What makes Nico extraordinary is he has found an original voice and he is at the same time writing music that really connects emotionally. That is, I think, very rare for a composer of large-scale classical works. He's original without being contrived," says Gelb.

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At the initial meeting with Muhly, Cremo suggested screenwriter and playwright Craig Lucas ("The Dying Gaul," "Longtime Companion") write the libretto. He just so happened to be flying in to the city that day and, within six hours, he and Muhly were brainstorming over lunch. Within six months, they had a complete draft of the project that would become "Two Boys."

This being opera, however, it took five more years for "Two Boys" to make it to the Met's stage, during which time he also wrote another opera, "Dark Sisters," about Mormon polygamists. ("Two Boys" is the first of the operas commissioned through the program to make it through the arduous development process.)

After a series of workshops in New York, a production of "Two Boys" was staged at the English National Opera in 2011 and received mixed reviews. The main problem, according to the critics, was in the storytelling, something that Muhly acknowledges was a challenge to get just right.

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