It’s not everyday you hear someone sing “age/sex/location” at the Metropolitan Opera House. Two Boys (through November 14), commissioned from the 32-year-old Nico Muhly, the youngest commissioned composer in the company’s history, deals with contemporary-ish subject matter: Internet chatrooms (which, yes, have since become obsolete). But playwright Craig Lucas’s exceptional libretto, despite its modern “dunno”s and “r u there”s and even one unsung ; ), is rooted in old-fashioned forms of storytelling, making grand drama out of fascinatingly lurid subject matter regardless of which realm, virtual or IRL, or era it’s set in.
The story, freely adapted from a tabloid true story (and thus follow spoilers) is that of “John” and “Mark,” here Jake and Brian, two English teenagers. In 2003, Mark/Brian was accused of attempted murder. “John also was charged—with inciting murder. His own murder,” as Vanity Fair reported two years later. It was a bizarre case in which the younger boy deceived the elder into trying to kill him, posing as several different characters and concocting an increasingly absurd spy narrative involving his sister, his mother’s family friend, his family’s gardener, and others. Brian becomes a Judas figure, at least the Judas from Jesus Christ Superstar: an innocent manipulated into murdering a madman-with-a-death-wish (the loving stabbing itself echoing Carmen)—someone he takes no pleasure in killing. The modern twist is how the web facilitates such manipulations.
Muhly’s score is a mishmash of styles, from a lush but anxious romanticism (Bernard Hermann-esque!) to complex choral music and the minimalism of Phillip Glass, his mentor, mixing them all together into something uniquely his own. His gripping score intensifies the central mystery and the paperback spy plot driving it forward. Though the detective sings, about chatrooms, “there’s no tenderness/there’s nothing,” librettist and composer show the appeal of such a world to the fragile adolescent. “It’s real,” Brian sings of his screennames world, in contrast to dull repetitions of his waking high-school life. Michael Yeargen’s set reflects this distinction; it’s drab, dark and gray in bedrooms and police stations until the action moves to the virtual world. Then, there’s light, color, vibrancy, making clear the allure of that alternate reality—and what might drive a young person to embrace it, even as it spirals into murder.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart