Last night, Halloween 2018, I decided to change the scenery and attend a new opera, entitled Marnie. I wanted to experience an institution’s version of a modern day commissioned work and what better way to do this by attending New York City’s own Metropolitan Opera. More specifically looking into the the production, reception and in general what a commission work means in today’s highly bombarded information age.
The new piece is based on a novel by Winston Graham which was made into a 1964 film by Alfred Hitchcock and now composed for the stage by Nico Muhly with a english libretto by Nicholas Wright. It was a co-production with English National Opera where it premiered for five dates at the end of 2017 in London. The production was made possible by Andrew J. Martin-Weber and additional funding by Francis Goelet Trusts, Dr. Coco Lazaroff, and American Express.
This is Nico’s second commissioned opera by the MET, the first being Two Boys in 2013 which was based roughly on actual personal events. He comes from Juilliard, worked as an editor and conductor for Philip Glass and made string arrangements for pop artist like Bjork and Grizzly Bear. He currently works and lives in New York City.
Marnie’s runtime is two hours and twenty-nine minutes with two acts roughly an hour long and a twenty-five minute intermission between them. The story is set in the 1950’s England, follows the main character Marnie and her consciousness through dark self reflecting events, entangled with petty crimes, manipulation, blackmail, and afflictions.
Robert Spano of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra makes his MetOpera debut with Marnie as he conducts the cast into the first act. Sitting stage right about five rows back, you notice the stage with a slight slant towards the audience when the story opens up in a modern office setting. Although the cast had dynamic range, the orchestra’s moody and undriven sound overpowered the voices on stage. The music lacked low frequency grip, echoing and foreshadowing the operatic voices through its dark tones in the story. Nico’s music lurked around the characters rather than leading the audience or directing the cast to the next event. With little propping and support for the casts, the music lingered in stillness through the show. There were moments where the production wanted to take the audience to the darkest realm, but was too afraid to cross the boundary. There were little moments of audible light in the composition and the cast and music meshed together giving little contrast. As separate works, the music may stand alone, but as a production as a whole there was a lack of tension.
The color palette, brightly captivating with true greens, reds, blues and yellows with patternless and sleek silhouettes reminiscence of AMC’s Mad Men. Costume Designer Arianne Phillips , who worked on Hollywood works like 3:10 Yuma, Girl Interrupted and The People vs. Larry Flynt, among many others debuts her work at the MetOpera. With minimal production that enhanced the story, the production utilized projections and white lighting on moveable sliding walls to create space for the change in settings and the passage of time. The stage production kept me visually engaged while witnessing extras tiptoeing props on and off the stage due to the lack of audio stimulus.
The crowd and audience was younger and casual, possibly followers of Nico, or just celebrating New York’s second New Year’s, Halloween. There were was a mix of out of towners, Japanese Businessmen, casual opera goers, sartorially dressed couples, but all seemed to be there to see Nico’s new work. Spotted at the main bar of the MetOpera, Nico was dressed in all black, while being handed and sipping champagne from a crystal designed plastic flute. There was a feeling of gratitude and lightness in his body movements as he was entertaining acquaintances attending his show.
Overall the Metropolitan Opera executed a piece a work that was avant garde through contemporary composers, cast members, conductors and production members giving new artists and experts a chance to redefine and debut their interpretation of what a modern contemporary opera could be. Involving young composers like Nico to reinterpret scandalous stories and allowing the crossing of mediums creates new ideas and boundaries to be pushed of the opera form. Marnie’s experimentation of a modern composition with old voice traditions, the integration of lighting and technology, and modern costuming takes the audience a little further into experiencing a new modern operatic form, but deposits flat moods through tensionless events. Marnie is showing until November 10th for another three viewings.
Maddocks, Fiona. “Nico Muhly: ‘I Wrote My First Composition at 12, a Sacred Choral Piece’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 May 2013, www.theguardian.com/music/2013/may/05/nico-muhly-interview-scream-outrage-barbican.
“Marnie.” Metropolitan Opera | Marnie, Metopera.org, 1 Nov. 2018, www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/marnie/.
“NicoMuhly,” Nico Muhly RSS, 1 Nov. 2018, nicomuhly.com/biography/.
“The Metropolitan Opera: The Cast and Creative Team.” Playbill, Oct. 2018, pp. 45–49.
“Two Boys.” Met Opera on Demand, Metopera.org, 1 Nov. 2018, www.metopera.org/Season/On-Demand/opera/?upc=811357017753.