Nico Muhly's Two Boys at the English National Opera
The Washington Post, 6/24/2011 (in print on 6/27/2011)
I can't stop thinking about Two Boys! Not just the opera itself, which made a powerful effect. But the reviews of the opera, the process out of which the opera came, the role of opera in our century and what a bankrupt argument it is to talk about the role of opera in our century. And the fact, most importantly, that opera has been anything, from revue to Singspiel to Einstein on the Beach to Gesamtkunstwerk to bel canto to intermedio, and can be anything, from Infinito Nero to Anna Nicole to L'amour du Loin.
There are many, many great operas being written today; they just aren't always making it to full-size opera houses. This season alone, I have heard tremendous new(ish) works by Sciarrino, Stockhausen, Haapanen, and Ronchetti (the best of the bunch)--and I'll be hearing promising new stuff by Henze, Hosokawa, and Eötvös soon. The fact is that the successful way to make a new opera is not to commission a big piece for a big hall. Though I wish the Met commissioned twenty or thirty new operas and put them all in their repertory, the best new operas are mostly monodramas or smaller works--a handful of singers, a handful of new-music specialists, a carefully-guided theatrical team to create a set of visuals to best compliment the music. In a smaller hall, on a smaller scale, everyone is relieved of the crushing expectation of having to make history, of having to finally write "The Great American (or Whatever) Opera," and that is where magic happens.
It seems that Two Boys' greatest hitch was the expectations surrounding it, the so-called "hype" inflated by the very people who then said the opera didn't live up to it. Its other hitch, for me, was that it doesn't quite hit upon what I think is Nico Muhly's best skillset as a composer. I hold that Muhly's best music comes out of deep, organic collaborations -- his relationships with musicians like Valgeir Sigurðsson, Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, and others. I wrote an entire fifty-page thesis on this a little while ago, and I think what is so compelling about the triptych of works on Mothertongue, and also some of the music on Speaks Volumes (especially Keep in Touch), is that they present a different idea of what a composer can be. Though Muhly is ostensibly booked as "the composer" in those pieces, with his name on the cover of the album, the works feel much more open-ended: a composer starts it and someone else finishes, with others adding their voices along the way.
Valgeir's compositional voice (as producer) is omnipresent through both Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue; I can't imagine enjoying a piece like Keep in Touch if it were played by a violist who wasn't Nadia Sirota; and The Only Tune simply can't be done without Sam Amidon. It's a move away from the egotistical, quasi-Romantic vision of the composer as Master (or, in the cult of German genius, the composer as Hero) -- Muhly acknowledges within his music that his does not have to be the only voice; there are other people just as intelligent and creative who can play in his musical landscapes.
I'm not saying that no composer has ever done something like this before, but Muhly's approach feels fresh and invigorating. I don't subscribe to the model that says that great new music must be "progressive" or "experimental," pushing supposed boundaries in some supposed way (these are antiquated facades of Romanticism disguised as modernism), but Muhly's collaborative works are his best because they feel so new and different. Whether or not they are good because they are progressive, they are, for me, the direction in which I would want Muhly to progress.
I'm not sure how much that kind of collaboration took place, or could have taken place, with Two Boys. It's evident that Craig Lucas and Muhly worked together about as closely as a librettist and composer can, but the composer-performer relationship is a different beast from the composer-librettist relationship, and an entirely different beast from Muhly's composer-performer relationship in his collaborative works, which is more like a composer-performer/composer relationship (try to follow me here). There's a reason why so many composers turned to Literaturoper in the 20th century, taking spoken plays directly as their librettos. It's not so much that there are no good librettists anymore, but that it's difficult for good composers, in a century when composers have significantly more rights than Mozart or Rossini ever did, to cede that kind of control over their musical dramas (It's also worth saying that the days of Mozart and Rossini were also the days when people did not consider that a composer's first opera had to to stand in the Hall of the Mountain King with Wozzeck and Peter Grimes and Tristan -- those Halls did not yet exist). Muhly is better than most about ceding control, and I think that Lucas's libretto is quite clever and suitable for the opera, but something hiccuped a little bit along the way.
And "along the way" is an important part of this whole thing, because the process that this opera went through--whether it emerged stronger or weaker because of it--sounds like the standard protocol for any new opera we'll see grace the Met stage. A commission, multiple workshops, an out-of-town premiere: essentially a multiyear process even though the bulk of the opera was probably written in a much shorter amount of time. This is not a bad thing: we do not want to see the Met's "big commission" fail on a big scale. I would much rather have this extended, probably somewhat torturous, process take place than see Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna fail on a massive stage (let's face it, it was not just rejected by Gelb because it was in French) and watch it quickly shuttled away after a few partially-sold performances and hear everyone declare the Met's commissioning project a dud. Gelb has been careful and crafty about this. The fact that the Golijov and Torke commissions seem to have evaporated into the ether just vindicates his attitude. We cannot trust a great composer to turn in a great work on time, and huge credit to Muhly for not only finishing Two Boys on deadline, but also continuing to write commissions and other music for just about everybody with an instrument. He is also a composer who is more than happy to edit, a clear prerequisite for anyone going through this process (I imagine his work with Glass gave a clear model for this).
What was fascinating about reading all of the twenty-plus reviews of Two Boys was seeing what each critic thinks makes, and doesn't make, a successful new opera. I don't expect a classic to be erected on the spot, and it is ridiculous to think that Muhly's first opera would be his best. What is most promising is that we already have another one on the way--Dark Sisters, premiering in New York in the fall--suggesting that there exists the potential for composers to once again be like Mozart or Verdi, with dozens of operas to his/her name. No, Apollo et Hyacintus is not the greatest work of art, but we don't just Mozart solely on his first opera just as we don't judge Beethoven on his first symphony (but we do judge Beethoven, as an opera composer, on the basis of his singular, flawed Fidelio. Thus, we disparage Beethoven as an opera composer, whereas we don't diss Britten for Paul Bunyan or think of Verdi as the somewhat-gifted composer of Oberto).
Unfortunately, we don't have the infrastructure, or the intoxicating interest in the new that the opera world of the 18th and early 19th century had--what was actually less of an interest in the new than a lack of caring about the old -- which allowed Rossini to dash off 39 operas for a dozen different houses and retire at age 37 (he had already written 30 or so by the time he was as old as Muhly is now). But Muhly is prolific and people are eager to hear his music. It is entirely possible that we may have to wait twenty years, and even twenty operas, before we hear Muhly's equivalent to Don Giovanni. It's probably worth the wait.
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