Entertainment & Arts

Two Boys opera reaches out to web generation

Two Boys at the English National Opera
Image caption In Two Boys the internet 'functions in the story as a masquerade might in an old opera', says its composer

Opera's trying hard to be cool - and to appeal to audiences who traditionally had little time for the form. It's why many of the highest-profile new works have been based on stories from the news headlines. This week brings another example with Two Boys at the English National Opera (ENO).

Two Boys composer Nico Muhly first became aware of the bizarre real-life case behind his opera when he was reading the BBC News website.

In Manchester in 2003 a teenage boy posed online as a woman and in a series of postings persuaded an older boy to try to kill him. The younger boy was stabbed but survived.

But Muhly says he and librettist Craig Lucas only ever saw the story as a starting point. "It's not docu-opera. But the operatic potential was obvious.

"The history of opera is full of disguise - people pretending to be someone else, for political or sexual reasons. Sometimes it's for fun and sometimes it's out of malice. This story had to be an opera - it couldn't work as a play."

Though Two Boys is written and directed by Americans, Muhly insists they never considered shifting the locale to the US.

The piece is having seven performances in London at ENO and it's expected to play at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

When it's suggested his opera is about the power of the internet he protests. "It's a mechanism to tell a story about pretence. The internet functions in the story as a masquerade might in an old opera.

Our story's not about people wearing masks or women disguised in trousers. But it's a modern version of that because most people have been deceived in some way online."

Two Boys isn't the ENO's first attempt to create a work of appeal to people who aren't regular opera-goers, especially to younger ticket-buyers.

In 2006 it staged Gaddafi - A Living Myth with a score by Asian Dub Foundation.

Image caption Anna Nicole at the ROH was a recent successful example of tackling popular culture in opera

Music critic Ivan Hewett says that show was a total misfire. "Dramatically and musically Gaddafi was a lame piece - not really a professional opera at all.

"There has been a tendency for opera houses to commission new works about the real world. But there've been times when you felt the opera was created to tick the box of social relevance rather than out of any urgent artistic need to exist."

But Hewett thinks Anna Nicole, staged at the Royal Opera House in February, proves it is possible to chase a young and hip demographic without abandoning artistic credibility.

Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera told the story of the life and death of the US model and actress Anna Nicole Smith.

"Turnage took on the theme of the cult of celebrity and how it can destroy people. The piece had its detractors but I'd far rather see a lively attempt to seize on something current than a drab piece based on mythology."

Ivan Hewett believes that because audiences are increasingly unfamiliar with stories from mythology and ancient history is one reason why we're getting more stories from today's headlines.

But the story doesn't have to be contemporary if the project has the right names attached.

Image caption Pop star Damon Albarn has turned his talents to opera with Dr Dee

Rufus Wainwright's opera Prima Donna, about a singer modelled on Maria Callas, found appreciative audiences at the Manchester International Festival in 2009. This year the same festival has co-commissioned Damon Albarn's historical opera Dr Dee with ENO.

So perhaps tempting in younger opera-goers has more to do with employing new and interesting composers, writing in a new way, than with the work's setting and storyline.

Muhly, about to turn 30, says he bridles when people ask if he composed Two Boys for people of his own age. "I don't know what the alternative would be - writing something that only appeals to very old people?

"A good work will appeal to all audiences. What gets people in is a great production of a great piece of music."

Two Boys is at the English National Opera in London until 8 July

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