Muhly likes to shine, but opera plumbs dark side

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2011 5:48 PM

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Nico Muhly, 29, says he likes shiny objects, but his first opera, opening in London on Friday and headed later to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is about the murky world of Internet impersonation and underage sex.

"Two Boys," based on a true story, is about an Internet liaison between two teenagers, one of whom, in a failed attempt to get himself killed, adopts a female identity on the web in order to lure the other boy to stab him to death.

It's the kind of world Muhly says the younger generation, himself included, must deal with in the Internet age, though rather than happening in some lonely cubicle at an Internet cafe, his musical version is being brought to the stage by the English National Opera (ENO) with the kind of fanfare normally lavished upon Lady Gaga's latest outfit.

"There's been a lot of press about it being an Internet-themed opera and I think that's true in as much as something like (Mozart's) 'Cosi Fan Tutte' is a marriage-themed opera," Muhly, dressed in T-shirt and slacks, said following a dress rehearsal in the ENO's home theater, the Coliseum.

"I mean the Internet is a delivery system for a much more old-fashioned story about yearning and longing and things that are quite standard to the operatic themes and repertoire -- the Internet is a sort of vessel for this emotional content that's been around for quite some time."

In other words, opera, as well as classical music, is being reinvented for the Internet age, and Muhly, who was born in Vermont and is the son of a painter and a documentary filmmaker, is doing his bit.

Even though he's not yet 30, the Juilliard graduate has been at it for a while now, ever since the release of his first CD "Speaks Volumes" in 2006, but reaching a much wider audience for his highly successful "Mothertongue" of 2008.

He also wrote the soundtrack for the movie "The Reader" and his latest album, "Seeing is Believing" with the Aurora Orchestra, was released this month.

On "Mothertongue," Muhly deconstructs and samples what at first sounds like a simple folk song, until it becomes clear the lyrics are about one sister drowning another, and the hair, fingers and other parts of the dead sister being refashioned into a fiddle that can play only one mournful tune.

On the recording, Muhly uses conventional instruments, as well as the sounds of Icelandic wind and raw whale flesh slopping around in a bowl.

MUSICAL OMNIVORE

He is, he admits, a bit of a musical, as well as culinary, omnivore, his favorite London restaurant being one that specializes in offal. His musical palate runs the gamut from Elizabethan motets to Indonesian gamelan to Philip Glass minimalism to the late English composer Benjamin Britten's searing opera scores, several of which deal with forbidden or homosexual sex.

Muhly, who is gay, said he has paid homage to Britten's most pessimistic homosexual-themed opera, "Death in Venice," in "Two Boys." But he is hardly the despondent German writer of the Thomas Mann novel on which Britten's opera is based, who falls hopelessly in love with a boy staying in his hotel and deliberately contracts a fatal disease to punish himself.

Asked why so many composers are gay, Muhly's response was: "I have no idea. Every other day I vacillate between the sort of gay supremacist part of my brain and then also the sort of self-loathing part. It's difficult to know."

He's much more preoccupied with assuring that his opera makes the right impression. The interview is interrupted while the cast, including English soprano Susan Bickley, repeats the opera's closing octet, with a delighted Muhly clapping at the end and saying: "They fixed it."

"The process of putting on an opera is very difficult because the piece is my thing but it relies on so many other elements to work," he said.

"It's only as strong as the weakest piece, so if there is something wrong with the subtitles, something wrong with the video ... it's kind of my problem."

And why does someone who can write music as light, bright and jewel-like as the closing bars of "Step Team," played by the Aurora Orchestra on his new album, veer so far to the dark side?

"I like shiny objects and I think a lot of my interest in the darker possibilities of the electronic medium is that it is something that is fun to make."

His next opera, to which he is putting the finishing touches, is about a woman trying to escape a polygamist marriage. The title? "Dark Sisters."

("Two Boys" at the ENO through July 8, www.eno.org; "Seeing is Believing" is released by Decca)

(Editing by Patricia Reaney)