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Sitting alone in a box at the opera can give rise to mild delusions. The Duke of Wellington used to imagine he was in his sitting room at home and would greet the singers on stage as arriving guests. 'Good evening, Miss Lind,' he'd call out to the Swedish Nightingale. 'How are you tonight? All right, I hope.' He was not at all bothered when she proceeded to go mad and die before his eyes as Donizetti's Lucia.
Myself, I like to kick off shoes and sip coffee, receiving a performance at two levels of immersion, wet and dry. In a box, I can be both engaged and detached, absorbed by the opera and critically apart from it. You should try it some time. It's certainly the ideal way to watch Nico Muhly's Two Boys at English National Opera, a major world premiere which gives the surest sign yet that opera is getting to grips with the way we live now, in parallel virtual and actual realities.
The story, based on a true crime in northern England, involves internet stalking, murder and a graphic description of pedophile sex. But hold the gritty stuff for a few paragraphs. Put sensationalism aside and take a look around at what else is happening to opera, an archaic art form that has been written off as dead for half a century, too artificial to touch our lives, too costly to survive. Consider, too, and be amazed that the future of opera is being written not in Milan or Vienna or Bayreuth, but right here and now in the centre of London, where there's everything to play for and nothing is beyond limits.
Over the past six months, opera in London has taken three or four giant strides into the 21st century. Anna Nicole at Covent Garden was the first tabloid opera, a seamy account of the life and sordid death of a breast-enhanced bimbo married to a geriatric billionaire - not quite the everyday story of country-and-western folk but a modern parable which, in the hands of librettist Richard Thomas and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage did more than just move viewers to laughter and tears. It taught a moral of modern life, confronting our salacious voyeurism, our voracious Schadenfreude at the antics of slebby models, footballers and their attendant parasites.
Easy on the ear - Turnage has a delicious turn of chord, one of few living composers with his own distinctive thumbprint - Anna Nicole was not easy to watch. There was much squirming in the stalls, the discomfort of the defendant's dock. Yet Anna Nicole proved addictive to the very people it satirised. Not since Princess Diana was alive have so many screen faces thronged the Royal Opera House. The night I attended, touts were selling tickets at four times face value, and not wanting for takers. Anna Nicole gave the lie to the notion that opera is outmoded and elitist. It indicated that Doctor Johnson's 'exotick and irrational entertainment' can be every bit as populist and up-to-the minute as Lady Gaga in Lurex.
And who said you had to see it in the opera house? Ever since New York's Metropolitan Opera started live streaming in HD to selected cinemas, a night at the opera has never been the same. Puccini with popcorn, a coke with your Carmen, informality has crept in - and none the worse for that.
But cinemas are so-ooo 20th century. This weekend, Glyndebourne is beaming Wagner's Die Meistersinger to a screen in the Science Museum, making a bold effort to bridge the two cultures gap. In the same burst of bytes, the festival is putting its performance live and free onto a newspaper website. All art is defined by context. Opera has always been a prisoner between four walls, except in vast arenas, where it was amplified beyond distortion. What Glyndebourne has done is open a future where world-class opera can be anywhere, everywhere - in your kitchen, on your android phone, on your bathroom wall. Access, that stupid shibboleth of arts policy, is no longer an issue. Opera is for all.
Which kind of opera, and how it's presented, can be a matter of geography. America plays mostly safe with tried-and-tested works in expensive reinventions. Western Europe favours so-called 'scandalous' reinterpretations, replete with nudity and nuttiness. Calixto Bieito, who notoriously set Masked Ball in a men's lavatory at ENO, is at it again this weekend in Berlin, sticking 'Whores of God' signs on singing naked nuns in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites. Yawn? You beat me to it.
British opera, by creative contrast, has gone for a blend of high theatrical professionalism stolen from the West End and hot young composers, not all of whom have fired on full cylinders. Nico Muhly is a case apart. American, overtly gay and only 30 years old, he worked with Philip Glass on the Notes from a Scandal film score and is fluent in several cultures. Appearing with him on a panel, I was struck by his emotional concern for the effects of internet exposure on vulnerable young people - the subject of his opera.
Everything about Two Boys feels, behind a glib exterior, personal to him. A video that he circulated has been watched a million times on-line. Read that again: a million people watched a promo for a new opera. This has to be bigger than opera.
Two Boys, which opened on Friday, will attract expostulations of outrage from all the usual suspects for its depictions of gritty crime, illegal grooming and underage sex. Susan Bickley plays a Helen Mirren role as the detective who has to unravel the mess. The drama is coherent and the music often painfully beautiful, never more so than when Muhly writes an Anglican church chorale for a stunning boy soloist, and we know all the while what's going to happen to the boy.
Two Boys takes us into territory where no opera has gone before. It does not set out to shock, rather to force us to reflect from more than one aspect on the risks presented by the second life we enter when we turn our computers online and click on social media, facebook or twitter, suspending natural prudence.
Beyond opera is where Two Boys boldly goes. Sitting alone in my box at last week's general rehearsal, I was amazed at how gripping the work could be simultaneously on two planes of engagement - total and detached, virtual and real, human and online. Opera, I realised, can succeed better than any other performing art in reflecting the split levels of our lives, the psychological complexities of our electronic times. Every art has its moment in time. The immediate future could well belong to opera.
To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]