A Postlude of Clueless Grownups

That comment was one of the first to appear in my Twitter feed last night shortly after the Metropolitan Opera’s premier of the much anticipated Two Boys, a new opera with a score by hipster wunderkind Nico Muhly and libretto by Craig Lucas, began in a performance that was streamed live at the Met’s website.  I’m not sure if the above tweet’s author could foresee that it would describe perfectly the public’s reaction to the opera this morning.

I certainly didn’t.  I was surprised this morning, when, mind still fluttering with the swirling orchestrations, elegantly cacophonous choruses, and Alice Coote’s hauntingly beautiful singing that I had heard tell the darkly tragic story the night before, found Anthony Tommasini’s review on the New York Times website.  Then I read Anne Midgette’s take in the Post.  The reviews for the opera that I had been so enchanted by were largely negative, while the sentiments expressed in my corner of Twitter, populated by tech-savvy opera fans and performers, were full of nothing but adoration.

The cause for the sharp divide in how the performance was purcieved quickly became apparent:  reactions from the major news publications and the (beloved) snob contingent over at Parterre Box mostly panned the piece, while most of my peers and I were gushing.  One particularly vicious comment on Parterre outlined several seemingly carefully selected comments from twitter by “women under 30,”  side-by-side with comments from the Parterre’s chatroom.  The twitter comments basically amounted to “OMG THIS MUSIC IZ SOOOO GREAT!!!” while those from Parterre complained of how boring it all was.

In the words of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff:  “Parents just don’t understand.”

My friends and I agree that these guys just didn’t get it, and they didn’t get it because they never experienced it.  They don’t know what it was like to stay up hours and hours after your parents went to bed, sitting in front of the computer and communicating with strangers from all over the country or the world.  They didn’t know what it was like to hide behind a screen name and lie about your age and appearance, disguised as a fantasy version of yourself, and feel the virginal blend of curiosity, excitement, and squeemishness when the conversation became explicit.  You had heard the warnings about predators who lured young teens, but you knew you would never fall for that.

And maybe all the mature opera fans who didn’t care for this opera know all about the chat rooms of the late 90’s and early aughts, maybe they were there, having illicit conversations of their own, but they still don’t get it.  Why?  Something that I think people seem to forget as they grow older is how, when you’re a teenager, every experience is heightened.  Every emotion, every obsession, every crush, every anxiety, to a child of 13, 15, maybe as late as 18, has the gravity of a black hole in space sucking you in.  Those late night internet chats, to us, at the time, were enormously important, and Lucas’ libretto combined with Muhly’s score to recreate that feeling in a devastatingly tragic way.

So here are some choice selections from my own Twitter feed during the performance:

Now, the opera world has spent a lot of time lately wringing their hands about how to “save opera,” how to “attract younger audiences.”  By all accounts, the audience at last night’s premiere skewed much younger than the usual Met crowd.  If more performances like Two Boys is the bitter pill that can cure opera from whatever disease it is inflicted by, will the establishment swallow it?

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13 thoughts on “A Postlude of Clueless Grownups

  1. Isabela

    Couldn’t agree more! This is something that could really bring so many young and new people to the opera! And it also sucks that it’s not gonna be on HD D:

  2. cscjr

    This observation is particularly funny when applied to Parterre: “They didn’t know what it was like to hide behind a screen name and lie about your age and appearance, disguised as a fantasy version of yourself.” I missed the chatroom era, but much of what seems to have been its characteristics are still with us in the form of dating sites and meetup apps. I’m baffled by the failure of the “grownups” to understand that Two Boys is still relevant to today’s Internet, or indeed to today’s social interactions. Will I “forget” when I’m their age? BTW, I’m now 45 years old.

  3. Carol

    Dang. Was this post directed at me? If Alex complains about me pulling the plug tonight I’ll be sure to reference your line, “They don’t know what it was like to stay up hours and hours after your parents went to bed, sitting in front of the computer and communicating with strangers from all over the country or the world.” 🙂

  4. Michael Oberhauser

    Hmm. I overall did enjoy this, but wasn’t quite as blown away as you and your twitterfriends were. There were big errors, in my opinion, which I’ve related to you. Overall, I want much, much more of this sort of thing. I think it will eventually “settle” into something really new, really engrossing, and really successful – maybe not successful in traditional terms… a whole new audience may come out of this… but yes, still succesful.

  5. Laura

    While I agree with you on a lot of this, and that the music was very fine, a lot of the criticism has been the very old fashioned, fear and terror, old world view of the online ‘world’ as a terrifying place full of would-be predators, conflicted with the otherwise accurate and youthful painting that the libretto still conformed to. (aside from 2 other small things: in 2001 police stations had both mainframe systems to log cases and personal computers & women over 18 rarely gave up babies for adoption in the mid 80s in NW England, they kept them or had abortions). It was musically powerful and funnily enough the closure on a quiet poignant note rather than big operatic climax helped its musical appeal. The choruses were extraordinary: like quomodo cantabimus gone rogue…

    I agree there is a problem with operatic audiences. I’ve mates who won’t even countenance a story being transposed to a different historical period, never mind modern era…

  6. mollymakesmusic Post author

    I want to clarify that I don’t think this opera was, you know, better than Rigoletto, or will go down in history as one of the greatest works to grace the stage, but I do think it could become part of the standard repertoire if we let it.

    It’s almost as if people were searching for something to complain about, as many of the problems were, to me, mostly insignificant plot details. “A detective should have known better than that by 2001!” Well it doesn’t HAVE to be 2001. Yes, I know that that’s what the libretto said, but it might as well be 1997 for all the significance the date played in the story.

    Why hold the plots of new operas to a different standard than we do our old favorites? If the music is good. If it makes you feel something. Isn’t that what opera is all about?

  7. Laura

    There is a big trend in ENO-bashing on this side of the Atlantic that I suspect might be playing a part. This show originally was staged there and I think there’s a whole school of old school snobbery, and defense of opera as an elite interest that’s rounded on ENO in recent years. I witnessed it myself twice last month at two different productions. Tickets being so discounted, patrons can turn up not merely to be offended, but to sneer and scoff openly at the ‘less sophisticated’ audiences around them (something I noted, with no little disgust, at both performances) who are often first time or rare opera goers.

    I wonder if it helps new opera and subgenres if it’s performed in non traditional locations?

  8. operaramblings

    Not specifically about Two Boys but more with new opera in general…

    I don’t think we are going to see much new edgy stuff in the big houses. They will always tend to the easily marketable. The COC’s Rufus Wainwright commission might be a good example of that. The interesting new stuff is happening elsewhere but it is happening. I saw three new operas, that dealt with contemporary issues using contemporary musical idioms, in June alone. There’s a smaller audience for it but there is an audience. So, why try and force feed to the stuffed shirts at the Met and on Parterre (a site that I wouldn’t be seen dead on).

    Oh yeah and I’m a trendy young 57 year old grandfather but i did meet my sweetie on Newsnet back in the 90s.

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