NEW YORK, N.Y. – Little did Nico Muhly know when he composed “Two Boys” that the type of Internet deception he based the opera on would keep repeating over and over.
So when reports surfaced last winter that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was duped into an online relationship with a nonexistent woman, Muhly took notice.
“I was so happy,” he said, “in a perverse way.”
Then he explained how the Web had created such a tangled web.
“It wasn’t just some sort of man and girl in the suburbs. So that to me was very satisfying,” he added with a laugh, going on to cite the case of a physicist duped into smuggling cocaine while believing he was courting a bikini model.
“It happens to random people, to famous people, to really smart people, to educated people, to uneducated people. There’s a real kind of egalitarian nature to deceit, you know what I mean?”
The work by the 32-year-old New Yorker receives its North American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night, a fictionalized account of a British teenager who used the Internet in an attempt to arrange his own murder in 2003. The first composition to reach the Met stage from the company’s 7-year-old commissioning program with Lincoln Center Theater, “Two Boys” has been revised since its world premiere two years ago at the English National Opera.
Starring mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Detective Anne Strawson and tenor Paul Appleby as Brian, a 16-year-old accused in the stabbing of a 13-year-old named Jake, “Two Boys” is a starkly contemporary piece.
Met General Manager Peter Gelb said the adult themes ruled out the opera from inclusion in the company’s high-definition theatre simulcasts.
“It’s full of such darkness, such personally really upsetting things that I have to witness that, yeah, I feel very tired,” Coote said. “There’s a lot of sexual and emotional abuse going on in this piece.”
Gelb first became aware of Muhly when he was an executive at Sony. They started talking soon after Muhly was a pianist for a workshop of what became Rufus Wainwright’s “Prima Donna.”
Muhly wrote the opera with librettist Craig Lucas in a method Mozart, Verdi and Wagner would be unfamiliar with. When he had drafts of music ready, he would email them to Lucas as PDF files. Muhly composes at home and on the road — and on Amtrak trains.
“The cafe car is the best,” he said. “I find out in advance where it’s going to be and then wait by the staircase in Penn Station.”
Reviews at the original run were lukewarm. Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Telegraph that it was “a bit of a bore — dreary and earnest rather than moving and gripping, and smartly derivative rather than distinctively individual. Yet I wish that I could have heard it again before passing judgment.”
Since the London premiere, they’ve switched the beginnings of the two acts to make the work more linear, created more of a backstory to the detective, added about 1 1/2 minutes of music, inserted dancing to the online chat room choruses and made minor changes to the orchestration,
“I think most operas after their first performance get revised, since the beginning of time,” Muhly said. “And others go through a period of heavy, heavy revision, and then you realize the first instance was right.”
Gelb has instituted a commitment to contemporary operas at the Met since he took over as general manager in 2006, presenting the company premieres of John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” Thomas Ades’ “The Tempest” and Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha.” Trying to fill its 3,800 seats, the Met has put up posters in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, erected signs in New York City subways and advertised on MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show,” a reality program about Manti Te’o-style trickery in online dating.
“In general a piece that is completely unfamiliar to the audience is harder to sell, obviously, than a piece that is familiar,” Gelb said.
For all the modern technology, Appleby says the emotions of the story are familiar. He compares it to plays of Shakespeare and the French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac.
“A very, old traditional story about people trying to reach out and looking, longing for a connection or longing for love and not feeling comfortable expressing themselves,” he called it.
Everyone involved describes “Two Boys” as troubling.
“This is written in such a way that it almost expresses the disjointedness of daily life that we all live,” Coote said. “What has become of us as humanity when we’re so dominated now by the Internet, by technology, as our lives are quite a lot of the time being lived within those realms?”