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Paul Appleby Takes on Chat Rooms, Murder and Sex in the Met’s “Two Boys”

October 17th, 2013

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler chats with Paul Appleby, star of the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming Two Boys.

"Two Boys" at the English National Opera.(photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

“Two Boys” at the English National Opera. (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Teenage sex.
Online intrigue.

No—this isn’t the latest reality-based TV movie. It’s the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Two Boys. The 128-year-old cultural institution has commissioned this thrilling new work by composer Nico Muhly, whose recent projects include original music for the current Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie and for the upcoming film Kill Your Darlings. Bringing a bit of Broadway caché to the team is librettist Craig Lucas (The Dying Gual, Prelude to a Kiss, and the screenplay Longtime Companion) and director Bartlett Sher (Golden Boy, South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza).

Set in an industrial English city at the dawn of Internet chat rooms circa 2001, a teenager is accused of murdering a 13-year-old boy he meets online. As the investigation continues, a complicated web of narrative and characters reveals the spine-chilling consequences of living in a digital age. Based on a true story, much of the libretto is lifted from actual transcripts from the case and layered with haunting video projections by 59 Productions and a chorus of Met opera singers who have traded their corsets for laptops.

Paul Appleby (photo: Ken Howard)

Paul Appleby (photo: Ken Howard)

At the epicenter of this bizarre tale is the accused Brian, played by tenor Paul Appleby. On the fast track to becoming one of the opera world’s next great tenors (at age 30, Appleby is a recent graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and a recipient of a 2012 Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts), Appleby has his hands full with a vocally and emotionally demanding role that is stretching the boundaries of contemporary opera.

Appleby began studying voice while still in high school to improve his performing technique for musical theater, but once he started studying, his passion grew toward the classical repertoire. While Broadway is peppered with teenagers and young adults, the world of opera takes longer for voices to reach their full potential. “In opera, it simply takes a longer time for a younger voice to mature to the parameters that opera requires—to master the techniques to sing with an orchestra unamplified,” says Appleby. “I’m incredibly fortunate, I’ve had great opportunities to study with the highest level of teachers and musicians.”

Working as a freelance opera singer with a management representation in both the U.S. and Europe, Appleby is auditioning (and booking) projects slated as far out as 2015 and beyond. “This is why it takes so long to establish a career. Opera demands so many resources—a great orchestra and a great conductor, director and performers at the top of their fields.”

The Met’s production of Two Boys is a professional benchmark not only for Appleby, but also for composer Nico Muhly. “It’s [the Met’s] mission to present master works. There’s so much tradition in the 19th century repertoire. So this is somewhat out of the norm, particularly from such a young composer,” says Appleby, “but it’s a testament to Niko’s accomplishment as a composer. I applaud the Met for embracing and supporting [the production] the way they have.”

Paul Appleby (photo: Dario Acosta)

Paul Appleby (photo: Dario Acosta)

A certain suspension of disbelief may be required as Appleby embodies the complex mind and actions of 16-year-old Brian, but he winkingly acknowledges that it’s the Met and not HDTV—part of a long-standing tradition that places older actors in younger roles. And he has a first-rate creative team to support that vision. “Conductor David Robinson is absolutely genius, bringing out every ounce of drama and insight. And Bartlett is pushing us into specific and vivid characterizations,” says Appleby.

Appleby is confident that audience members, regardless of their previous exposure to opera, will find the piece engaging. “It’s written in the classical tradition of Phillip Glass and John Adams, but dramaturgically—the pace of the libretto—is unlike a lot of tradition. Though the musical content may be a classical, the dramatic pace and Bartlett’s staging leans more in a contemporary direction,” he says.

He’s also quick to point out that Muhly’s score is tonal and melodic. In addition to classical works, the composer has written for Björk, the Brooklyn-based rock band Grizzly Bear as well as frequent collaborations with colleagues at Bedroom Community, an artist-run label headed by Icelandic musician Valgeir Sigurðsson.

While Appleby has his hands full with Two Boys (no pun intended), the rest of his 2013-14 is packed with engagements, including reprising the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte with the Canadian Opera Company (company debut). He also makes his company debut with the Washington National Opera, singing Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, along with numerous concert appearnces including Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

For now, though, Appleby, will be channeling the psyche of a disturbed 16-year-old on one of the world’s greatest stages. No small feat. But it is the Met, after all.

Two Boys
Performances begin October 21.

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