October 30 2013

Designer Michael Bastian Reviews 'Two Boys'

New York

A scene from "Two Boys" at The Metropolitan Opera.

CFDA Award-winning designer Michael Bastian is the latest addition to Standard Culture's critic roster, so be sure to welcome him aboard! Earlier this week, we sent him to see the Met Opera's staging of Nico Muhly's "Two Boys." Here's his review ...


If you think you don't like opera, Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" at the Metropolitan Opera House could be the one that changes your mind.

The thing that has always turned me off about "contemporary" opera is the disconnect between the action you're watching and the words you're hearing. Are the characters just singing an elaborate explanation of what's going on, or are they singing (in their own appropriate vernacular) what they are feeling and thinking, bringing you along for the ride? In "Two Boys" the characters are definitely telling the story through their words and actions, and this is what separates this particular opera from a lot of the others out there.

What I realized while watching it earlier this week is that listening to a story being told through singing, as opposed to through speaking, as in a play, feels more like drinking something in, versus eating and chewing on bits of information, which is more what the experience of regular theater feels like.


Opera has this unique ability to take you somewhere else. The story, if told properly and effectively, is poured into your brain. Singing triggers a different, sometimes deeper emotional response. That may be a clunky analogy, but I'm sitting here trying to dissect why I wasn't annoyed or distracted by the singing of the plot, when with most operas I usually wish they could just get to the point and tell me clearly, and without the unnecessary drama, what the hell is going on.

Yes, friends, I'm reviewing opera when I'm actually disinclined to liking the fundamental aspects of the art!

But this opera is different. The story revolves around something all of us can relate to in contemporary life: the fundamental opaqueness of connecting with other strangers online. Most of the action takes place in chat rooms (do they still exist?) and between people who have never met in real life. A thirteen-year-old boy in suburban England creates characters online to attract the attention of another teenage boy, engaging him sexually at first as a made-up female to get him on the hook, then slowly introducing more menacing characters to draw him deeper into his life.

If you've watched "Catfish" on MTV, you get the general idea of what's going on here.

Composer Nico Muhly


It was fascinating seeing the physical embodiment of these fictional people come to life and tell the story, while their real adolescent creator stays in the shadows until the end. The opera also manages, through video projections, surveillance camera footage, moving scrims and computer screen shots to capture the chaos and inherent duplicity of this kind of ephemeral, obsessive "chatting." Lots of noise, lots of pixels and blinking cursors, but very little that is real or true. Parts of it reminded me of the laser shows you used to see at the Planetareum, and I say that giving total props to the set and lighting designers.

The human ballast to the story's electric dust cloud is a lady detective investigating the crime that results from these two boys finally meeting up. There's a secondary story layered on about the detective giving up her own child for adoption and the obliviousness of the parents of the kids involved in the crime, but these plot elements seem minor in a story that is basically about one boy's elaborate online fantasy life.

A scene from "Two Boys" at The Metropolitan Opera.


I left wishing that there were one more act — one where we could really get in the brain of that kid and see (or hear) what drove him to construct such an elaborate, erotic suicide fantasy — but this is left for the audience to fill in the blanks. Unlike the last 10 minutes of every television crime show, the motives and backstory aren't fully explained in the end, and maybe that's what makes this true story more powerful.

"Two Boys" plays at The Metropolitan Opera until November 14th.


Previously: Michael Bastian Reviews Anna Nicole: The Opera

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