Nico Muhly on His New Opera and Women’s ‘Pressurized’ Lives

How does that work?

I’ve twinned each important character with an instrument, so that it can become “motific.” When Marnie is under extreme pressure, the instruments can be at their highest or lowest tonalities; the sound can evoke an emotional state that the text and the action don’t obviously tell us.

The orchestra isn’t just creating atmosphere or texture. I think I did that well in “Two Boys,” but this time I started to interact: Rather than a big atmosphere ocean, I wanted a more explicit relationship between the instruments and the individuals on stage.

Then there is the question of what you do with the chorus. The great thing here is that they can function as real people — in the office, at the pub, at the country club. But they can also switch into a psychologically oppressive force. That’s great for Michael, because he is free to make more abstract use of them.

Were you influenced by Bernard Hermann’s score for the film?

What I did was this: Two years ago, I listened to the score, I watched the film, and then I put it away. That was incredibly liberating.

If there is a connection to the film for me, it’s the looming presence of men in Marnie’s life. The sense of pressure as the men from her past catch up with her is musically and dramatically important in the opera.


Mary Bevan and Nicky Spence in “Two Boys.” Credit Richard Hubert Smith

Both “Two Boys” and “Marnie” are about identity and self-definition. Do you see this as an issue of our time?

I think many operas are about the identity of the person at the center of the story. The thing that connects these two for me is that both the boys and Marnie function like opera composers: They create a cast of characters with different voices. The more Marnie writes, the more dangerous it gets and suddenly the set comes crashing down.

This connects to a bigger question. As a gay man, I don’t have access to this, but women are currently pointing out that you have to behave one way here and a different way there to avoid this aggression that is so commonplace. Women have to write their way out of these situations.

If you read Tippi Hedren’s comments about Hitchcock, she says he harassed her, but also how brilliant he was. There is an unconscious negotiation women need to make all the time; just think of the Trump comments caught on tape, and all the recent stories about Harvey Weinstein and others.

The day after the U.S. election, I felt, who needs a new opera? But then you realize that the fictional world relates so explicitly to the pressurized environment of women’s lives now.

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