DuJour Navigation

The Perfect Opera Is an Internet Scam

Composer Nico Muhly, whose first grand opera comes to the Met, on why online hoaxes work beautifully onstage

Opera has always made use of the darker side of life for inspiration, whether it’s murder, adultery, deception or some nefarious mixture of the three. The Metropolitan Opera’s latest commission is no different, except for the face that the tragedy plays out, for the most part, online.

In Two Boys, beginning October 21, composer Nico Muhly’s first large-scale opera, an investigator follows the trail of a stabbing—based on a real-life case in the U.K.—that started as an online relationship between a pair of young men.

Here, Muhly talks about why the story appealed to him as an opera and how he himself has been the victim of an Internet hoax.

How did this particular story become the one you wanted to tell?

I’m of just the age to have grown up with the Internet in the home. I’m 32, so when I was 15 or so was when people started getting it. I grew up in the situation where there was no sense of not talking to strangers online; we were taught not to talk to strangers when they pull up to you in the car and offer you a donut.

I was always very attuned to when my friends would get into weird Internet trouble, and I remember reading this story about this boy who got stabbed and there was this complicated online intrigue and while it was very clear who had stabbed him, there was a whole backstory that takes place almost entirely digitally. When I got this commission and they asked me what kind of story I was interested in telling, it jumped to the front of my mind.

It’s something that’s very much in the zeitgeist right now; people love Catfish.

Remember that dude in the Times, that physicist who thought that he was going to have sex with a Brazilian supermodel, but he was actually just a coke mule? These things are happening all the time.

They are. And you decided to make them the focus of your first large-scale opera.

It’s a very old opera plot, actually. Many operas—Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, for example—use a disguise as one of the plot vehicles. For me it’s like the perfect opera because on stage you can literalize what Internet people look like. For instance if you go online and you think you’re talking to a 16-year-old girl, that’s what you get on the stage, you have a young soprano. That to me is exciting because you’re physicalizing the fantasy.

The show premiered in London. Have you changed much since then?

We tried to do something a little fancy with time: We started in the middle then backed up and went forward. It was a little bit too clever. What we did is flip the beginnings of the two acts so everything runs in order. It sounds like a minor thing, but it actually made a huge difference. The other thing, and again I think it’s unique to police stories, is that you want to have a little bit of backstory about the detectives. This is something that you see done in shows like SVU or Prime Suspect, or the movie Seven. Those were the two areas of concern.

Have you ever been hoodwinked online?

I haven’t and that’s why I was fascinated by this. A million years ago, I got cancer grifted—someone said that they were really, really sick and to send money, and I did. It was a friend of a friend in the early days of Facebook. You know when you get an email that’s clearly bullshit? In the early days it was harder to know that sometimes because people hadn’t developed email styles. My mother still sends emails that look like spam—it looks like she’s spelling words in ways to not get them filtered.

Having this more or less under your belt, do you see yourself continuing to work on operas?

I would love to. It’s totally amazing and I can’t believe how great opera companies are. The thing that they’re doing is so complicated and requires so much coordination. It’s this combination of military precision and artistic excellence and it’s actually appalling how great it is.

Two Boys begins October 21. See below for a look from the premiere, and click here for more details and ticket info.



Anna Nicole: From Reality TV to Rock Opera
A Musical of Mythical Proportions
Buyer and Cellar: How to Be Barbara Streisand