Thursday, October 24, 2013

Two Boys, or Not Two Boys? – The Met Cops Out

Paul Appleby and Andrew Pulver
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
I keep reading that it’s the subject matter of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys that has kept it off the Met in HD playlist.
Met General Manager Peter Gelb said the adult themes ruled out the opera from inclusion in the company's high-definition theatre simulcasts.
Does the Met really think that the U.S. opera-going public is so narrow-minded, or close-minded, or unsophisticated (choose all that apply) to cope with this story? My guess is that they really just thought it wouldn’t sell. It may or may not, but will The Nose sell? Will hauling out the ancient La Boheme yet again sell? (Well, yes, probably. I guess that’s a bad example.)

I suppose it’s all about how the work is presented. As La Cieca pointed out, a lot of operas have adult themes (even Hansel und Gretel).  Like Otello and Rigoletto are such nice happy kid-friendly stories! Yet, I suppose, when presented in period costume, in German, French, or Italian, a potentially disturbing story suddenly becomes more appealing—or at least less disturbing. 

But the Met commissioned this opera for heaven’s sake. They have a chance to be more-or-less groundbreaking—even if the ENO scooped the world premiere. They have a chance to be less of a museum and more of a living, breathing art form. By all accounts, it was successful in the UK and so far, the reception in New York has been positive*. (OK, the Washington Post's Anne Midgette didn't like it, but that was expected. Though a bit disappointed, at least Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times didn't hate it.)

Meanwhile, David Patrick Stearns reviewed Monday's opening for Operavore, and called the opera "Hypnotic and Frank." Upon the occasion of the world premiere in London in 2011, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times wrote:
it richly fulfills the promise of opera: an entertainment of ideas. For once, you leave the theater talking not about whether the soprano has hit her high notes but about a work’s themes, its relevance to our lives.
Opera that has relevance to our lives. What a concept! 

Meanwhile, those of us outside of the NYC metro area will have to rely on the reports of others. It won’t even be on the Met radio broadcast series. They did at least live stream the opening night online last Monday. Hopefully someone captured that and will share it. For now, all we've got is a few Met preview clips (and a couple from the UK, too.)

Of course, the Met website does advise us that “…Two Boys contains some profanity, sexually explicit language and adult content.” Are they sure we can handle it? I guess they're sure we can't. 

*OK, maybe not so much. I just looked over Charles T. Downey's helpful review roundup from the Washington, DC area blog, Ionarts. In spite of the negative press, it still would be nice to see it and be able to form our own opinions. And this may be pushing it ('cause it may truly be not that good), but remember what a terrible reception operas like La Traviata and Carmen first received! 

Meanwhile, William Robin wrote a good piece (I'm tempted to call it an appreciation) about Nico Muhly and his music in general for the New Yorker column Culture Desk.


  1. I think it's a delaying tactic. You'll notice they didn't HD The Nose in its first run, or Satyagraha. (And there's certainly some profanity prominently displayed in Nixon in China, though, granted, not nearly as much.) I'd be willing to bet they'll HD a revival.

    Would you like some mail?

    1. Good point. I guess if they DO revive it, there may be hope of seeing it.
      Of course, I love getting mail!! :) (and I just realized my email didn't show in my profile. It does now.

    2. It would surprise me very much if they didn't revive it, given how much they put into it, how much attention it's garnered, and how many new (young) faces it appears to be bringing into the house (if comments on Twitter are anything to judge by).

      Not to mention the fact that it really is an excellent piece of work, with the benefit of being both sonically accessible and musically interesting at the same time, which is way more than an lot of other composers of opera can muster these days.

    3. ps: mail has been delivered unto you

    4. Well, it's good to hear positive reaction and feedback on the work. And of course, I think I said this before, a lot of really well-loved operas were not initially well-received. Speaking of received, thanks for the mail!

  2. I'm not taking anything Gelb says about HD at face value. The change in line up this season is very abrupt. The Nose aside it's pretty much all revivals of standard rep, much of which has already been seen in HD. I think it's a conscious strategy to avoid cannibalisation by only HDing the "tourist" shows.

    1. I do wish they'd get over that idea of HD drawing away the live audience. And if that's the case, then they should just black out the NY Metro area (or do they already?) I thought the point was to bring the Met to those of us who generally can't make it to NYC.

      I mean, if I get the opportunity to attend live, I'm not going to go, "oh, I'll just watch it at the cinema down the street with Diehard 14 playing in the next theater."

      OTOH, there's merit in broadcasting standard rep. OTOH it'd be nice to see Midsummer Night's Dream, Wozzeck (well, nice might not be the right word for Wozzeck) and Two Boys in HD...

    2. As it happens, they don't black out the NY Metro area, but I wonder if that really does bite into the live audience numbers or whether, like me, people go to the HDs and then spend their opera budget on other, non-HD'd in-house performances.

      Also there is the very real question of an ageing segment of audience that can no longer physically get to the Met, so they go to the HDs. It's keeping audience members in the fold and probably garnering more of their cash than the Met might ordinarily swing under those circumstances.

    3. Gelb is on record saying that the HDs are cannibalizing the NY audience. I doubt it's the core NYC audience but rather the folks who might come in from out of town for a couple of shows per year though I have nothing to back that up. I have certainly heard people in Toronto say that they have stopped going to COC because of the Met broadcasts. Reasons vary. To some extent it's the "traditionalists" who are angry about more adventurous productions at COC and in some cases I'd put it down to hearing loss.

    4. Not only the aging regulars who did attend live, but the Met is drawing new viewers old and young, and to see operas they might otherwise pass over. My Dad saw Parsifal in Bayreuth in the 50s, and probably would not have made the pilgrimage to NY to see the new Met version, but he DID head downtown with a bunch of other retirees to see it in the cinema. He skipped Onegin only because he had tickets to a live concert that evening. And he is heading off to see The Nose, just because he's got easy access to it.

      The things that bother me about Gelb's assertion that HD is draining audience is (1) that he bases this on what? There don't seem to be any stats to back this up; and (2) and he doesn't seem to be taking into account the new audience they may be building up, including both younger AND older opera fans who (I am sounding like a broken record here) can't, can't afford, or won't make the trek to NYC to see it live. I would say that there is even a possibility that opera audiences may grow and more folks might be inclined to try live opera in their home towns (keeping in mind the COC/Toronto factor) after seeing the Met in HD stuff.

    5. Yeah, I read Gelb's comment on cannibalizing, and what he fails to take into account (or prefers not to mention) are the Met's not-insubstantial ticket price hikes in recent years, plus their adoption of a somewhat exorbitant convenience fee structure, plus the rising cost of getting there - from where I am, that's about $75 between car, train and subway, and not counting meals. For me that results in having to triage -- I'll go to the HDs but this year the only thing I'm likely to see in-house is Two Boys. I'd be willing to bet that this is true for a lot of people coming in from the suburbs, which is to say for a pretty big chunk of their audience.

    6. I can imagine one thinks carefully before committing to the trek. I know at the Kennedy Center, in addition to tickets, if you drive you pay a lot to park on site. If you get there early, you eat there, etc., etc. Of course it's not just the opera that's dealing with this situation.

  3. I saw the final Two Boys, and kept kicking myself for not also seeing an earlier performance. Even though I had listened to both radio broadcasts, there was still so much going on at once, that I know I would have benefited form 2 or 3 performances. I know everyone doesn't need it, but I thrive on it. Well - the show the one time I saw it? Much better that we had been led to believe from most print accounts. I see a lot of new opera. Much better than most of what I see. Does that mean it is done - perfect. Absolutely not, and I think Muhly knows that. He was rewriting right up until the last performance I heard. It needs some more rewriting. But even as it is, it tells a story with stunning music and a great cast. What more is there? I hope it is revived and and HD happens. I would say the average age in the final, mostly full house, was between 40 and 45, with a lot of high school kids. And most of them stayed to the end, which didn't happen with Rigoletto the following night, even though Hvorostovsky was giving a killer performance. Lot more gray hair waiting for the elevator at the end of Rigoletto than at Two Boys. Those young kids just used the stairs!

    1. I am envious that you got to see it and I haven't yet. But I also really appreciated reading about your experience and your impressions. I have read that Muhly did extensive revisions between London and New York. Historically he is right up there with all the great opera composers, who never seemed (except maybe Wagner) to settle on a "final" final version of their operas.


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