Two Boys leads the charge into the 21st century

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Sitting alone in a box at the opera
can give rise to mild delusions. The Duke of Wellington used to imagine
he was in his sitting room at home and would greet the singers on stage
as arriving guests. ‘Good evening, Miss Lind,’ he’d call out to the
Swedish Nightingale. ‘How are you tonight? All right, I hope.’ He was
not at all bothered when she proceeded to go mad and die before his eyes
as Donizetti’s Lucia.

Myself, I like to kick off shoes and sip coffee, receiving a
performance at two levels of immersion, wet and dry. In a box, I can be
both engaged and detached, absorbed by the opera and critically apart
from it. You should try it some time. It’s certainly the ideal way to
watch Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera, a major world
premiere which gives the surest sign yet that opera is getting to grips
with the way we live now, in parallel virtual and actual realities.

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The story, based on a true crime in northern England, involves
internet stalking, murder and a graphic description of paedophile sex.
But hold the gritty stuff for a few paragraphs. Put sensationalism aside
and take a look around at what else is happening to opera, an archaic
art form that has been written off as dead for half a century, too
artificial to touch our lives, too costly to survive. Consider, too, and
be amazed that the future of opera is being written not in Milan or
Vienna or Bayreuth, but right here and now in the centre of London,
where there’s everything to play for and nothing is beyond limits.

Over the past six months, opera in London has taken three or four
giant strides into the 21st century. Anna Nicole at Covent Garden was
the first tabloid opera, a seamy account of the life and sordid death of
a breast-enhanced bimbo married to a geriatric billionaire – not quite
the everyday story of country-and-western folk but a modern parable
which, in the hands of librettist Richard Thomas and composer
Mark-Anthony Turnage did more than just move viewers to laughter and
tears. It taught a moral of modern life, confronting our salacious
voyeurism, our voracious Schadenfreude at the antics of slebby models,
footballers and their attendant parasites.

Easy on the ear – Turnage has a delicious turn of chord, one of few
living composers with his own distinctive thumbprint – Anna Nicole was
not easy to watch. There was much squirming in the stalls, the
discomfort of the defendant’s dock. Yet Anna Nicole proved addictive to
the very people it satirised. Not since Princess Diana was alive have so
many screen faces thronged the Royal Opera House. The night I attended,
touts were selling tickets at four times face value, and not wanting for
takers. Anna Nicole gave the lie to the notion that opera is outmoded
and elitist. It indicated that Doctor Johnson’s ‘exotick and irrational
entertainment’ can be every bit as populist and up-to-the minute as Lady
Gaga in Lurex.

And who said you had to see it in the opera house? Ever since New
York’s Metropolitan Opera started live streaming in HD to selected
cinemas, a night at the opera has never been the same. Puccini with
popcorn, a coke with your Carmen, informality has crept in – and none
the worse for that.

But cinemas are so-ooo 20th century. This weekend, Glyndebourne is
beaming Wagner’s Die Meistersinger to a screen in the Science Museum,
making a bold effort to bridge the two cultures gap. In the same burst
of bytes, the festival is putting its performance live and free onto a
newspaper website. All art is defined by context. Opera has always been
a prisoner between four walls, except in vast arenas, where it was
amplified beyond distortion. What Glyndebourne has done is open a future
where world-class opera can be anywhere, everywhere – in your kitchen,
on your android phone, on your bathroom wall. Access, that stupid
shibboleth of arts policy, is no longer an issue. Opera is for all.

Which kind of opera, and how it’s presented, can be a matter of
geography. America plays mostly safe with tried-and-tested works in
expensive reinventions. Western Europe favours so-called ‘scandalous’
reinterpretations, replete with nudity and nuttiness. Calixto Bieito,
who notoriously set Masked Ball in a men’s lavatory at ENO, is at it
again this weekend in Berlin, sticking ‘Whores of God’ signs on singing
naked nuns in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. Yawn? You beat me to
it.

British opera, by creative contrast, has gone for a blend of high
theatrical professionalism stolen from the West End and hot young
composers, not all of whom have fired on full cylinders. Nico Muhly is a
case apart. American, overtly gay and only 30 years old, he worked with
Philip Glass on the Notes from a Scandal film score and is fluent in
several cultures. Appearing with him on a panel, I was struck by his
emotional concern for the effects of internet exposure on vulnerable
young people – the subject of his opera.

Everything about Two Boys feels, behind a glib exterior, personal to
him. A video that he circulated has been watched a million times
on-line. Read that again: a million people watched a promo for a new
opera. This has to be bigger than opera.

Two Boys, which opened on Friday, will attract expostulations of
outrage from all the usual suspects for its depictions of gritty crime,
illegal grooming and underage sex. Susan Bickley plays a Helen Mirren
role as the detective who has to unravel the mess. The drama is coherent
and the music often painfully beautiful, never more so than when Muhly
writes an Anglican church chorale for a stunning boy soloist, and we
know all the while what’s going to happen to the boy.

Two Boys takes us into territory where no opera has gone before. It
does not set out to shock, rather to force us to reflect from more than
one aspect on the risks presented by the second life we enter when we
turn our computers online and click on social media, facebook or
twitter, suspending natural prudence.

Beyond opera is where Two Boys boldly goes. Sitting alone in my box
at last week’s general rehearsal, I was amazed at how gripping the work
could be simultaneously on two planes of engagement – total and
detached, virtual and real, human and online. Opera, I realised, can
succeed better than any other performing art in reflecting the split
levels of our lives, the psychological complexities of our electronic
times. Every art has its moment in time. The immediate future could well
belong to opera.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent
at scena dot org

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About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

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