Non-Fiction Opera

One of the most thrilling things about watching Nico Muhly’s new opera, Two Boys—which I saw last night at the Met—was being carried along by the story from beginning to end. As a big fan of noir films, and detective procedurals, it felt like a novelty to see a whodunnit unfolding on the opera stage. On first viewing, it was as much a theatrical event as a musical one, in the sense that the plot was driving the action. Why did that feel like a revelation?  It had moments of strange beauty that were often surreal; and then there was the wondrous choral polyphony—at which Muhly excels—of the final scene.


The playwright Craig Lucas based his libretto for the opera on true events, which happened ten years ago in Manchester.  After the opera, I immediately sought out the original story (on the internet, of course) and ended up reading Judy Bachrach’s 2005 Vanity Fair piece, “U Want 2 Kill Him?“, which went into considerable depth on this strange tale of two boys who found each other on the internet, via chat rooms, and culminated in a bizarre murder plot.  I have to say Lucas did great justice to this complex tale, managing to fold in the key plot points into this relatively short opera.

But what also interested me, as a journalist, was the fact of an opera based on non-fiction narrative.  Of course, there are examples of opera being based on true events—recent examples might include Anna Nicole (Mark Anthony Turnage), Nixon in China, Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic (John Adams), and Dead Man Walking (Jake Heggie).  But it seems especially noteworthy when a piece of art is spun from a piece of narrative journalism.

It’s a special kind of story that lends itself to opera.  I was fortunate to work on one, as the researcher on James B. Stewart’s 2002 book, Heart of a Soldier, a remarkable true story about a British man, Rick Rescorla, whose biography was the stuff of a Boy’s Own adventure. In some ways the story was old-fashioned in that it was an epic story, with themes of love and heroism that culminated in a dramatic finale on September 11, 2001.  The San Francisco Opera commissioned an opera (composed by Christoper Theofanidis, libretto by Donna Di Novelli), which had its world premiere on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Of course this story was quite different from Muhly’s opera.  But what elements must a nonfiction story contain to make it right for opera, or shall I say, grand opera?  Maybe the composer and critic Edward Rothstein was onto something with the following thought:  “… an opera is usually a public event, a narrative meant to communicate something out of the ordinary.”  In this regard, Muhly’s opera fits the bill.  It’s an extraordinary exploration—using technology as a conduit—of an ongoing human problem.  Loneliness.


    1. Wow. I’ve been waiting for years for someone to compose an opera about Martha Mitchell. What a great subject, and what a great role for a dramatic soprano.

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