Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera

 


"On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog", a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993

Yesterday Kate and I went to see Nico Muhly‘s new (and first) opera Two Boys at English National Opera. Kate’s not much of an opera fan but we’d both seen and loved another Muhly premiere, Impossible Things with the Britten Sinfonia, and so it wasn’t hard to persuade her along.

What a great evening it was. We attended the pre-concert talk, part of the ENO’s Join the Conversation: Live series, and it was far fuller than your usual pre-concert talk with three speakers (including Muhly and the video producer Mark Grimmer from 59 Productions) and a brief recital with Muhly accompanying Valerie Reid on the piano as she sung the character Anne Strawson’s opening aria. I learnt tons about the opera and the talk turned my excitement and expectation up to 11!

And we were not disappointed. Two Boys is a fabulous and gripping opera. Beautiful and thought provoking.

The video promised to be beautiful too. I had already seen 59 Productions work with the ENO in Death in Venice, Riders to the Sea, Doctor Atomic, Messiah, Satyagraha, and The Pearl Fishers so I knew how good they could be – neither background nor foreground but subtly integrated into the staging and performance. I was even more excited to find (in the pre-concert talk) that Grimmer had eschewed the usual graphics used to sum up the internet. Initially I was disappointed. When Grimmer said they’d avoided the obvious I assumed he meant they would not use abstract data visualizations of networks. But that is exactly the aesthetic reference they started with! I was left pondering which more conventional imagery they had discarded. But I was not disappointed for long, because the projections were so well done in terms of integration into the action and in terms of balance with the acting and other staging and just so beautiful that I soon forgot my disappointment and just enjoyed them.

The criticism that proved harder to shake was of the subject itself. Back in the early days of the internet there was a real fear that when you were talking with someone on the internet you had no real idea who they were. This fear was summed up perfectly in 1993 (yes 18 years ago) by Peter Steiner in the New Yorker cartoon above. Academics also explored this idea, most notably Sherry Turkle in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Perhaps the internet would prove a place of continual identity play where we could be whoever we wanted to pretend to be. But no, that is not what happened, and most of these analyses have been revised, even the cartoon.


Response from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Now we realise that the opposite problem may be more real. Like all teenagers I did things I’d rather forget. And indeed I have forgotten most of them. My children play their lives out in an archived medium and so for them forgetting and reinvention is harder, not easier. Jaron Lanier talks about this (amongst other things) in his book You Are Not a Gadget. But even these new fears are not crippling. I grew up surrounded by cars and find crossing the road relatively easy (though I was taught how to do it). My children grew up surrounded by the interweb and by social media. Though I’ve done my bit to teach them how to use it safely I’m sure it is their generation not mine that will be fluent and safe.

Not that the old fear was without founding, the news event on which Muhly and Lucas based Two Boys was real, as was the Lori Drew / Megan Meier case referred to by Muhly in the programme. But these events are uncommon. Nico Muhly is fluent in interweb, so why choose a hackneyed 1990s fear as the driving plot device? Why not look more subtly at  the problems presented to young and old by the internet? danah boyd’s writings are a great resource for this. Or why not recognise that communication on the internet is less about problems and more about adding depth (and texture) to existing real friendships, as is pointed out in Richard Harper’s recent book.

[N.B. In the interests of full disclosure I ought to point out that Lanier, boyd, and Harper are all colleagues of mine at Microsoft Research.]

My criticism is quite abstract. The concrete detail of the opera was wonderful. The plot was gripping. Kate and I spent the interval sipping pink drinks and trying to guess who the guilty party was, and I’m happy to fess up that I guessed wrong. The production, the set, the video projection, etc. were beautiful and really drew us in. The singing was fabulous, especially the boy soprano Joseph Beesley and the main characters: mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, tenor Nicky Spence, and soprano Mary Bevan. Above all of that goodness the most memorable part of the evening was the orchestration. I’m sorely tempted to buy tickets for Friday and go and listen again. There were some lovely touching parts and I especially enjoyed the way the tuned percussion was woven together from either side of the orchestra pit, with the glockenspiel and two xylophones (marimbas?) on the far right and the celesta on the left. Fantastic.

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