Are u there?
I went to see Two Boys at the ENO last night. It’s a new opera by the Vermont wunderkind Nico Muhly. As I understand it, he’s not as well known over here as in the USA, but it’s a real coup for the ENO to have commissioned him to write something, two years ago. It is also prescient, or maybe just lucky, that the opera turns out to be about something completely contemporary.
On one level, we could say that the subject matter is literally two weeks old. It’s a tale of subterfuge online, with one character impersonating others (variously, his promiscuous sister, a rapist, an MI5 agent, and an older version of himself) through the Internet. Given the story of the Gay Girl In Damascus, now shown to be An American Guy In Edinburgh, Two Boys is bang on trend.
Having said that, the theme of one person impersonating another is hardly a new one for drama. If we just consider the idea of online subterfuge, Patrick Marber’s Closer does it, as does Ste Curran’s Monica. In this Tuesday’s episode of Eastenders, Shirley stole Phil’s phone in order to send misleading text messages to Rainie. And impersonating a sibling in order to get closer to the one you love is standard Shakespearean fayre. I suppose what this opera reminds us is that Everything Is A Remix. The new technologies allow us to do the same old things, except with a different sheen.
Detective Inspector Strawson (Susan Bickley), the lead character and sleuth of the piece, catches on to the solution much slower than most of the audience, I’ll wager. In recent years we have seen an explosion in time shifting, deceptive story lines, and Two Boys is firmly in the tradition of cyber-realist storytelling. Despite time shifts and flashbacks, it is easy to understand what is unfolding and when. This is reinforced by the repeating lines of libretto (amusingly surtitled in its abbreviated chat form, “u there?”, “ASL?” &ct), which take on new and more disturbing meanings when sung by different cast members, as the deception of fake identities is revealed. Muhly performs similar repetitions with the score too, as familiar refrains return in new, darker ways.
Its a clever ploy that the D.I. Strawson is a middle-aged woman. All good drama gives the audience an avatar, and Susan Bickley is, I guess, the precise demographic of the traditional opera-going audience member. Even if the audience understands the timeline of the story, that is not to say they have an understanding of the online world. D.I. Strawson’s bemusement at the behaviour of the teenagers (“It’s a different language” she says) was certainly shared by much of the audience. During the interval, I overheard some of my neighbours talking about how “It’s a different world, isn’t it…” as if they were watching an opera set in the land of Titipu or some far off world. This seemed to me precisely wrong. It’s the same world as our own, just brought into heightened relief. The Internet does to the human world what opera also intends to do – present a stylised, pared down representation, without all the fuss and confusion. All the better to reveal truths and relationships we may not otherwise perceive.
“To them, it’s real”, those same neighbours went on to observe, with ‘them’ being the young ‘uns, the digital natives. This is true but also patronising, because the speaker assumed that the world of chatrooms and forums depicted was wholly false, while the world she inhabited was real, true, and authentic. I submit that she was wrong, and that the mistakes made by the older of the Two Boys, 16-year-old Brian (played by 28-year-old tenor Nicky Spence), are precisely the same mistakes made by the rest of us, most of the time: specifically, if something is written down then it must be true. This false lemma is what keeps dictators in power, excuses wars and distorts financial markets. It is what allows people to experience a very real sense of bullying online. Written words carry an innate credibility, whether they be incribed on a stone tablet, papyrus, vellum, paper, billboard or screen. Even misspelled lolspeak has value as a sort of propaganda, allowing us to peddle a lie or a version of ourselves that bears little relation to the ‘truth’. It’s interesting and surely no accident that the Two Boys set (by Michael Yeargan and Fifty Nine Productions) was a series of plain grey blocks, onto which a bit of scenery and a lot of text was projected. Inside and outside of an opera house, words allow us to conjure our world.