Desire Before Identity in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys 

Paul Appleby as Brian in Two Boys.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera

It is increasingly uncouth, in mainstream criticism, to assign any special meaning to a gay storyline, impolitic to suggest that because a narrative happens to include a gay sensibility, relationship, or characters, it might warrant a different kind of evaluation. That creators of clearly gay-themed work nonetheless resist being labeled as “gay artists” and that critics comply by noting gayness matter-of-factly (if at all) is, I guess, another triumph for the “we’re just like you” school of the gay rights movement. But in the rush to tear down the walls of the much-maligned gay-art ghetto, could we be sacrificing the richness of understanding that’s only possible when difference is celebrated and investigated rather than downplayed or dismissed as irrelevant?

I offer, as a case study, composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas’ highly anticipated and moderately well-received opera, Two Boys, which is currently in the middle of its American premiere run at the Metropolitan Opera. Briefly, the two-act work—based on true events in Britain—uses the structure of a police procedural and the language of the early 21st-century chat-room Internet to examine how a precocious 13-year-old boy, Jake, created a diverse and Catfish-like cast of online personas (most important, a pretty girl called Rebecca) in the service of seducing a 16-year-old, Brian, into having sex with and then killing him. You’d think that with a title that transparent and a plot that soaked with homoeroticism, critics would feel invited to at least consider how the gay experience might be of service in unpacking the opera; and yet, for all the feverish chatter surrounding the fever-dreamy production, serious discussion of its gayness has been curiously, frustratingly absent.

To be fair, you could argue that no one in Two Boys is technically gay, at least in terms of the paradigm of “being out.” Jake, the young manipulator, seems fairly aware of his emerging sexuality—posing as Rebecca, he initially asks Brian if he is gay and then quickly drops the subject—but treats it more as a theory in need of testing than an internalized identity. And though Brian is clearly (if uncomfortably) aroused by the attentions of Jake, he is ostensibly straight, explaining his decision to “let” Jake fellate him as an act of pity (a classic closet-case move).

That said, I’m actually not overly concerned with applying labels like “gay” or “closeted” here; rather, I’m interested in how impressively and arrestingly Two Boys illuminates the psychic space where they honestly don’t (quite yet) apply. We live in a moment in which it is harder and harder to inhabit that space, one that is not exactly the closet—which implies a certain level of self-knowledge and acceptance that has yet to be made public for some reason—but is instead somewhere behind it. To strain the metaphor, the mental place I’m describing is something like a Narnia behind the wardrobe, a hazy landscape filled with half-articulated, yet-to-be named desires and aesthetic/erotic obsessions still free of the weight of politics or ideology. It’s all the stuff that is retroactively explained by “gay” once you’re out, but is something else while you still don’t quite realize that you’re in.

It is hard to explain this state of pre-gayness, the experience of living in this limbo before language has explained body and mind to themselves, to those who have not lived it. It is filled with flickers of attraction and flashes of yearning, hints that sometimes even coalesce into clear fantasies of connection that have as much to do with sensibility as sex. However, due to circumstances that range from regional diversity to religious repression and beyond, this flurry of activity can avoid accumulating to the level of “Ah, I’m that” identity for a surprisingly long and not necessarily wasted period of time. For my part, despite copious, glittering, hindsight-highlighted evidence to the contrary, I did not connect gay with me until my first sexual experience with a man during freshman year of college. That moment continues to represent a kind of rupture in my internal timeline; after that night exists the solidly gay, perhaps better-adjusted me, but before it was someone else—someone who, though I have difficulty accessing him now, I am pretty sure was erotically richer for lacking a demarcated love-object, psychologically interesting in ways that could not withstand the blinding, all-encompassing light of gay identity.

I know I am not alone in this experience, but I do get the impression that it is increasingly rare. As countless trend stories attest, kids are “coming out” (i.e., understanding themselves to be gay, with all the cultural and political baggage that entails) earlier and earlier, no doubt thanks to increasingly unavoidable media representation, wider cultural discussion and acceptance, and, of course, capitalism’s interest in creating niche markets. To be clear, this is not necessarily a negative situation, but merely a change from the way things were before—a change about which I remain comfortably ambivalent.

But if this hazy, heady pre-gay experience is on the decline, a veteran can’t help but hope for some kind of keepsake for posterity—and that’s exactly what Two Boys provides. Here, again, we have a landscape of flickers and flashes, chat windows offering different flavors of non-binding connection, and pixelated images summoning flushed cheeks and locked bedroom doors. Fantasy, transposed into the more audible range of web slang, is the language of the realm, electric screens the means by which Jake and Brian sing it to one another, sustaining the reverie. This opera has all the magnetism of a status bar with its familiar mix of impatience and excitement: identity formation in progress, desire definition download not yet complete.

Read the many reviews and think-pieces on the show, however, and you could get the impression that it is, rather drably, about Internet culture at a particular moment in the past. The chorus sings complicated (and quite gorgeous) layers of A/S/L chat lingo, antique message boards are shown on giant screens, and faces glow in the light of fat laptops and grand projected representations of the networks that connect us all. And yet, the web is only as intriguing as the millions of people who get caught in it. As one of the show’s designers told The Atlantic, “It’s about letters appearing on a screen, but yet from out of that, it’s as much about imagination as it is about anything else.”

A real-time crisscrossing of imaginations, a networking of extra-cranial psychic extensions—these are what the Internet, in a certain sense, actually is. So to speak of Two Boys as if it is simply about communication and technology is as strange as describing Muhly’s scoring as “novel combinations of vibrating materials”—music amounts, of course, to more than the objects and actions that produce it. Likewise, in the opera, the early Internet happens to be the means by which two minds—each stumbling through the wild, misty pre-gay landscape I’ve described—connect and become, in this case, dangerously entangled. (They could just as easily have met for lunch or sex, but that’s not operatic.) So when we say that Muhly’s opera feels dated, we are talking as much about the version of sexuality on display as we are the operating system facilitating its exploration.

Which, it should be clear, is not a criticism on my part. Though he seems relatively uninterested in foregrounding the gayness in Two Boys in interviews, Muhly has nevertheless produced a valuable record of what it was like, not to “struggle with,” but to have the luxury of being awash in one’s yet-to-be-solidified sexuality. As that possibility, for better or for worse, is foreclosed (with a great deal of help, ironically, from the Internet), I am glad we have at least this one way of hitting the back button, even if just for the length of an aria.