Nico Muhly: Two Boys

The Wunderkind Composer Finds Inspiration in Digital Intrigue for His New Opera

Heralded as the heir to Philip Glass, 29-year-old New York composer Nico Muhly makes his opera debut with the genre-busting thriller Two Boys at the English National Opera. Directed by Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher and featuring a libretto by Craig Lucas, the production is held together by its magnetic score, previewed above with an excerpt from the production's second chorus, remixed for NOWNESS by the composer himself. "It moves between standard operatic arias and very stylized, severe choral textures," Muhly says. The narrative focuses on a bizarre incident based on a true story, in which an online chatroom exchange between two teenagers leads to murder. "What I wanted was an episode of Prime Suspect," the composer reveals, tongue-in-cheek. "A grand opera that functions like a real quality evening's entertainment." Muhly’s magpie-like habits have won him a cult following not just in the concert hall but in indie music circles (where he's collaborated with the likes of Björk and Antony Hegarty), Hollywood (he scored The Reader), and online, courtesy of his riotous blog which sees him riff on anything from medieval psalmody to porcini mushrooms. We spoke to classical music’s hottest property on the eve of his premiere.

You're an incredibly internet savvy composer. What’s the online attraction?
It's a very natural extension of what I do. It's about a desire for engagement. You can often have a more meaningful relationship online than offline. Two Boys touches on this. The work contains an example of how the internet can be dangerous. But it also contains moments of extreme beauty and connection.

Have you had any online relationships?
Not romantic ones, but I have had friendships that have been conducted exclusively online. One of my best friends, my closet confidante, is someone I've only met in person four times over six years, not for reasons of distance but just because in person it was awkward.  

A few weeks back a lesbian Syrian blogger known as Amina was outed as a fraud. Your take?
So great. "Gay Girl in Damascus," I lived for that blog.

Did you read it?
Are you crazy? It's all I read! What is so beautiful about that guy [American Tom MacMaster, the real author] is, he's a composer. He managed to write for an "instrument" he doesn't play. That's exactly what I have to do every day. I see online deceit as one of the most admirable acts of composition.

You’ve just released a new record, Seeing is Believing. How would you characterize it?
The main piece, “Seeing is Believing,” requires a lot of virtuosity and has a lot of thought behind it. It's a shimmery little complicated cocktail dress of a thing!

Let's play matchmaker. What contemporary classical music would you suggest for a Black Sabbath fan? 
Definitely anything by my Icelandic-Australian friend Ben Frost.

What about Morrissey?
I'm not actually sure I know the way across for Morrissey. For me, and people of my generation, there is no analogue to Morrissey. 

Creatively you seem to straddle high and low culture with ease. Does that translate to other parts of your life? 
That's how I dress. Right now I'm wearing 17 different Rick Owens T-shirts that are all in tatters that cost as much as my apartment.  

Now that you've done an opera, you've covered every form of music. What's next?
To do them all again, but better.

ENO’s Two boys opens at The London Coliseum tonight and runs to July 8. 

Nico Muhly photo by Joss McKinley, 2011

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Conversations (1)

  • Mickael Cyngiser
    His work with Antony and The Johnsons is breathtaking.

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