Thus, the reception of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met could be described as classical music acting like pop, with predictable results…
The praise and pans are in for Nico Muhly’s premiere of ‘Two Boys’ at the Met. The company’s long-awaited commission is one of the higher profile attempts to reach a new audience, a noble effort that unfortunately has been attempted many times before. When a performer or composer from outside of classical music is engaged to work with a classical institution, one of two things happen. 1) the star’s fan base comes out for the performance(s) but never returns to hear anything else again, or 2) the fan base doesn’t come out, and neither do mainstay audiences. In this case, despite efforts to promote the premiere among the people who might not normally come to opera but might like Muhly, Williamsburgers saw no need to trek up to the Met when they could download him at home.
Another part of the problem might have been simple. The music was not very good.
Straight up, I have not seen ‘Two Boys’ and I don’t intend to. I heard ‘Dark Sisters’ and that was enough.
From that performance, I know enough to agree with critics when they find beauty and shimmering tonalities (you’ll find 462,000 hits on Google for Muhly + shimmer), and as many have pointed out, there are moments of interest and inventiveness, but the boldest critics call it for what it really is: boring and derivative. In ‘Dark Sisters,’ the recitative sounded like how a non-singer would make fun of recitative; the relentlessly repeated phrases of knock-off minimalism stalled any drama, and the score’s pleasant “accessibility” contributed mightily to its forgetability.
So it’s no surprise that spectators in the Grand Tier were “waiting for the darn thing to end” (see the comments), that the Met will not include “Two Boys” in its broadcasts (for dubious reasons), and that James Levine is wary that there are few new operas good enough for the Met.
I’m not against 21st Century opera developing and thriving. In fact, there’s a ton that is worthy, lively, and unfortunately little known. And they will likely remain little known, unless they were written by someone with tremendous crossover appeal whose name has the potential to sell. But a marketing juggernaut putting its weight behind flimsy music makes me nostalgic for opera that can sell itself on its own merits. Opera that just needs to show up and be itself. Here’s a production that will make you weep with nostalgia: