Any time a new technology digs its way into our daily lives, the ones that preceded it undergo a kind of dual transformation. In one sense, they’re elevated: Compared to meme-generators and BuzzFeed listicles, TV shows are high art and cinema is downright sacrosanct. The Internet and its endless digital distractions have inadvertently bestowed old media with a new layer of cultural heft, as movies and television did for drama and fiction a generation ago. But elevated as they may be, they’re also a tougher sell. Why step into a theater these days when there is so much happening right there on your phone?
This puts opera, a centuries-old tradition, in a difficult spot. How do you attract young people to such a notoriously esoteric discipline, one often branded as an outing for privileged plutocrats? Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera, meets this challenge in a way that just may transform the way young people think about the craft -- if enough people tweet about it, that is. The dark story of a British teen whose deceptive online relationships devolve into a passionate fit of violence is as timeless as it is operatic. And its 21st-century underpinnings give it an immediacy that resonates in the way its creators intended.
It could have been a gimmick: conversations playing out via chat rooms, complete with LOLs and other Internet slang, projected on giant screens and supplemented by world-class opera singers. But those conversations end up being what works best about the show. Shown from the perspective of Brian, the 16-year-old protagonist, the chats reveal one of the more unsettling consequences of the digital age. Living our lives in pixels, we are at once powerful and powerless, projecting whatever half-truth personas we desire with the understanding that those we encounter may be doing the same.
The 32-year-old Muhly, weaned on the Internet as a teenager in Rhode Island, drew inspiration for “Two Boys” from a real-life story of online deception he’d heard about on the BBC. He was 25 when he met with Paul Cremo, the Met’s opera dramaturg, and convinced him that the modern tale was ripe for an operatic retelling. And yet, for all its distinctly 21st-century plot points, “Two Boys” is likely to have a healthy shelf-life. In some ways, it’s already a period piece. Set in a small industrial British town in 2001, the story is a quaint time capsule of early Internet naiveté. Brian is frustratingly trusting of the people he meets online, a victim of pre-catfish innocence. And even as chat rooms have given way to Facebook and Reddit, “Two Boys” will stand as a baseline for the fascination we all felt when we first logged on.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has made it his stated goal not just to attract younger people to opera but to do so before its current audience dies off. By that measure, “Two Boys” is an undeniable triumph -- there was barely an empty seat in the house on the night that I attended, and the audience was decidedly wrinkle-free. Whether Muhly’s monotonous score, desperately in need of an occasional jolt of energy, will resonate with a generation more accustomed to accessible melodies remains to be seen.
Either way, “Two Boys” is a success story that is particularly poignant in light of the recent closure of New York City Opera, an institution whose central mission was to infuse the art form with a dose of proletariat accessibility. Its final show, an opera about tabloid queen Anna Nicole Smith, was proof that it was not afraid to take risks, but it wasn’t enough to rescue the embattled organization from a $7 million debt load, nor was a Kickstarter campaign, which barely raised a fraction of that. The Internet, as a vehicle for saving opera, has its limits.