Nico Muhly, one of the most eminent composers working today at the age of only 32, has been obsessed with catfishing long before the word “catfishing” meant anything other than casting a line into water.
This passion for stories of internet misrepresentation has recently manifested itself in his new opera, Two Boys, which will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Oct. 21 after a very successful run at the English National Opera in 2011. Based on a true story, it follows a relationship steeped in the kind of artifice that’s specific to anonymous relationships on the internet, and details what can happen when that spirals violently out of control. BuzzFeed spoke with him about using the centuries-old medium of opera to tell a modern (but also kind of timeless) story of love and deception.
BuzzFeed: How did you first become aware of the story on which Two Boys is based?
Nico Muhly: I was an obsessive follower of internet crimes when they first started happening, and this original story was this confusing thing where there was a ton of coverage boy who had been murdered, and all of a sudden, the news coverage stopped, which means that something flipped — you can’t publish the name of minors if they’re a perpetrator of a crime, and something happened in the story where it was just like, “Oh! No more.” So I was picking at the surface of this thing, and eventually more details came out, but in the meantime, all these other things started happening. There was also the case of Megan Meier, the girl who killed herself because her next door neighbor’s mom pretended to be a 16-year-old boy [and harassed her online]. In the early days of this type of stuff, no one really knew what the hell was going on. Now it’s kind of a thing—like, we all know what catfishing is — but in the Wild West days of those chatrooms, there was no precedent for that kind of thing.
BF: Have you ever had experiences anonymously talking to people online?
NM: Yes and no. When I was in high school, I would entertain it as a joke for a minute, but it never went further. I have a pretty strong bullshit meter, but also a pretty strong mortification anxiety! I never let it get as far as one of these stories. It’s funny, because how old are you?
BF: I’m 22.
NM: Well, I’m 32, and so we have very different relationships with the technology. For me, I was already in high school by the time there was an idea that you could get it in your house. Then Craig [Lucas, the librettist of Two Boys] got to come at it from another totally different angle, since he was an adult then.
BF: What intrigues you so much about internet crime and Munchausen by internet?
NM: Munchausen by internet is so interesting because a lot of it concerns “cancer grifters,” which are like my favorite thing to read about. SO many of these fake online things turn into cancer grifting. Even our story turns into cancer grifting! The little boy at the end tells the other boy, “Oh, I’ve got brain cancer, and I don’t think I’m going to last for longer than two weeks,” which in turn allows the older boy to be like, “Oh, it’s OK if I stab him.” It’s an emotional cancer grift. For me, what’s interesting about the whole thing is as it relates to art — the history of plays and the history of mythology. It’s always disguise, right? Like, Zeus comes in the form of a swan to get some pussy. Zeus is always dressing up as other people to either get some pussy, or some land in that weird Greek fealty way, like, a temple would be rededicated to him. There’s a political and a sexual element to it. In plays, you have things where people pretend to be dead so they can hear what people say about them, or hide behind the curtain in Hamlet or whatever. In tons of operas, the entire plot hinges on a physical disguise being used to find out the truth about something. That’s, for me, where it gets interesting, because what you’re required to do as an audience member is go along with the fact that a character is supposed to be unrecognizable to the other characters in a totally blatant disguise.
The fun thing with the internet is that you can disguise a person for real in literal space. The idea of body doubles and all those things… those can really happen on the internet! So it was this perfect, attractive way to tell a very old story with a new delivery system. One thing I’ve been struggling with, with this piece, is that everyone goes, “It’s an opera about the internet!” Well, no! It’s about the same thing that people have been doing since the beginning of time, which is feeling lonely and trying to figure out what to do about that. It so happens that with online relationships, you can get away with a deeper level of deception than you could physically because a person doesn’t know what they’re looking at. You can make up and control what other people see. In a sense, the kid [Two Boys is based on] created an opera. He created the teenage girl, the old lady, and all these other different stock opera characters. So [making Two Boys] felt like the perfect 3D thing to do.
BF: As for the misconceptions — you’re a young artist who has created this thing that concerns the internet. Have you gotten stodgy responses about that?
NM: It’s been fine. I can’t worry about it, because there’s really only one thing that I’m the author of here, and that’s the music. And so I can’t force people to talk about it until they’ve seen it. But it’s been good! The Met is an amazing place to do anything because they take everything really seriously, and my primary focus is just getting it onstage.
BF: What are the difficulties of representing the internet on a stage?
NM: One thing that Craig and I did really early on in the process was decide on some rules. And the rules are that you see characters as they want to be seen. What that means is that, if someone’s like, “I’m a 16-year-old girl” online, you see a human 16-year-old girl actress portraying that. If a person is chatting with someone, they see that person as they imagine them to appear on the stage as a physical, real person. We’re not doing a whole thing with screens and deception. It’s simultaneously more literal and less literal. What you then have are a series of spaces that are literal, like someone’s bedroom. We’re trying to set as much as we can in a real place. You never go into, like, “virtual reality,” like Demi Moore in Disclosure or whatever. We do project chat text onto big moving surfaces. The challenges are the same things that make it fun. Another rule is that we have no spatial transitions — no curtains that go down with an orchestra playing as the scene changes. It’s more like constant, fluid motion. A scene ends, and the people from that scene are in the next one for, like, four minutes or something. The scenes dovetail. That was a rule mainly as a time-saving device, and also as an anti-realism/detective story type of thing. In Law and Order, you go from one thing to another, but you have to sit in the car with the police. In the noir tradition, you have to sit in the car as they drive. For me, the atmosphere comes from the actual feeling of going online — the feeling of time stopping and of being surrounded by a million voices.
BF: How do you engage with the internet now? I know you have an amazing Twitter, but how else do you predominantly use it?
NM: I’m interested in places where you can get into huge ideological arguments about smaller things, like in comment threads. Like these polygamist blogs I read — one of the most interesting things is that it’s this universal truth that they mostly live in poverty, number one. Number two, there’s an acknowledged tactic by the polygamist families to have all the women register as single mothers because they’re not technically legally married, so what that means is that there’s an enormous amount of state funding going to them. Where that gets interesting is in the various other non-polygamist communities of what the Christian or non-Latter-day Saint thing is to do — how to look charitably on the community on which you live. It’s really complicated! It’s the weird sci-fi part of my brain that loves all these new rules you have to learn — it can be like a new language. Anytime there’s an intersection of the personal and the political and the legal and it’s all happening in this semi-public way online, it just makes me so excited! It’s voyeuristic, but it’s also observing people who believe something so strongly — I think in a lot of cases, middle-class kids like me can kind of get through life without having an opinion on anything. You can be like “whatever” about politics and social justice, et cetera. Whereas these spaces online, that’s not a position that anyone has. Everyone’s passionate.
BF: What’s your great hope for what you convey to audiences with Two Boys?
NM: It’s a very old story about a very straightforward human emotional situation, but it’s taking place in this hyper-aware online environment. Old stories sometimes have new delivery systems. You can take this miraculous genre like opera and try to harness its weird power in a new way.