Nico Muhly On How a Hitchcock Thriller Inspired His New Opera

Nico Muhly On How a Hitchcock Thriller Inspired His New Opera

Have you ever encountered someone so genuinely excited about something that suddenly you are equally amped up? That person is composer Nico Muhly, and that thing is opera.

Muhly’s newest opera, “Marnie,” has its Metropolitan Opera premiere this Friday night. Originally a book by Winston Graham, “Marnie” was turned into a movie starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in 1964. After watching the film, Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer approached Muhly to tell Marnie’s story through an opera.

Marnie is a woman whose many psychological layers offer Muhly a playground on which to score. Muhly’s enthusiasm for music is tangible and intense, and results in colorful, complex and inviting sounds that utilize instrument and voice interchangeably. As an opera composer, he has the capacity to open audiences to a new way of communicating stories through this art form.

Turning “Marnie” into an opera has been a five-year endeavor for Muhly. ALL ARTS spoke with the composer via email a few days before the opera’s North American premiere.

ALL ARTS: What were your immediate feelings when you first read or watched “Marnie”?

NICO MUHLY: It’s an extraordinary book with extraordinary psychological depth and fantastically dry prose. I remember most Hitchcock movies in terms of single shots — I’m not sure I’ve ever really paid attention to anything anybody says in “North by Northwest,” although I could take you through it frame-by-frame.

AA: What attracted you to turning “Marnie” into an opera?

NM: It was very simple: Michael Mayer called me and said, “Do you know what would make a fabulous opera?” And I agreed and then it was now!

AA: What’s the most difficult part of the writing process?

NM: The most difficult part of any writing process is the structural planning. With an opera, of course, there is the advantage of having a librettist who generates a libretto which is the structure for the piece. But within that, opera has the difficulty of the speed of text delivery. For instance, if I have a paragraph of text to set, it could take no time at all, or it could take six minutes to get through, and that’s the composer’s job to figure out the “footprint” and the rhythmic structures within the libretto’s own architecture. Getting that right is, for me, the most difficult thing about operas, because it’s fine if it works scene-by-scene, but you don’t ever really know how the proportions work until you see the whole thing, top to tail.  It’s a bit pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey until that time.

AA: What’s the most fun part?

NM: For me, the most fun part is hearing it straight through. It’s also the most nerve-wracking part because it exposes everything I might have done wrong, structurally. Hearing it straight through without stopping also means that there is nothing I can say to the singers or the conductor — it’s the first time where it’s entirely in their hands. It’s thrilling — like riding a bike downhill.

Isabel Leonard (center) in the title role of Nico Muhly’s “Marnie” with (l. to r.) Dísella Lárusdóttir, Deanna Breiwick, Peabody Southwell and Rebecca Ringle Kamarei as the Shadow Marnies. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

AA: Tell me about the “Shadow Marnies” and they role they play.

NM: The Shadow Marnies represent her past personas, and they are invisible ghost-like figures who surround her, encourage her, antagonize her and echo her. With a few exceptions, they don’t sing complicated text, and usually their text is fragmented and more sonically interesting: They sing without vibrato, in a kind of early music style, setting them apart from the rest of the singers and the chorus. It’s almost like another character made of four people, and another set of instruments as well.

AA: You mentioned Isabel Leonard was your first thought to play Marnie — can you tell us why?

NM: Isabel is an extraordinary musician, and deals, I think, in a shimmering sense of enigma, which is perfect for the role.

Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland and Isabel Leonard in the title role of Nico Muhly’s “Marnie.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

AA: Can you tell us about the decision to utilize male dancers in representing Marnie’s harassers?

NM: The decision to include dancers I think arose from the idea of the Shadow Marnies — we have these woman constantly there, but also, it was important to show her always subtly antagonized by men — they represent a sort of male gaze which exists less as specific incidences of harassment and more as an atmosphere of vague menace. It also helps us move around furniture and the very complicated set, which consists of sliding panels; some of them are automated and some are operated by stagehands, but having men in suits move them around is pretty chic. They also help us create an energy on the floor of the stage during a very complicated visual sequence depicting a fox hunt from the point of view of the fox.

AA: Talk to us about approaching the themes in “Marnie” during the #MeToo era. Has it impacted the artistic process?

NM: We started writing the piece before the #MeToo era, such as it is, but like most operas, they become surprisingly and shockingly relevant with every cultural shift. We talked about it a lot in the rehearsal room in London, and we needed to figure out a way to deal with the complexity of the relationship between Mark and Marnie without turning either of them into one-dimensional characters. One of the things she has to wrestle with is why she stayed with a man who sexually assaulted her, which is one of the enormous complexities of this piece and of the global conversation we’re having. I feel particularly ill-equipped to opine on this, as a white gay man, but I will say that I am pleased that the work we all made together resonates, and I hope that it can be, in some way, socially useful.

AA: What do you hope audiences experience when watching “Marnie”?

NM: I’d never presume to tell an audience what to think. I’d like them to come out with a sense of longing and unsettlement and beauty and thrill and every other possible emotion.

Isabel Leonard as Marnie and Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland in a scene from Nico Muhly’s “Marnie.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

AA: What do you think the world of opera is missing right now?

NM: This is such a huge question and I have no way to answer it, except I think the pretty obvious thing is diversity onstage, offstage and on the creative team. Interestingly, backstage is far more representationally proportional — from stagehands to costumers — but it’s the composers, directors, conductors, designers, etc., who, I feel, should represent the rich world we all live.

AA: What does the future of opera look like?

NM: I really hope nobody has an answer to this! We just have to fight for this thing to still exist, and to open the doors wider, and to create new doors if the ones we have aren’t big enough.

AA: And finally, give us something new to listen to – anything!

NM: My friend Henry Jamison made an album called “Gloria Duplex” with my friend Thomas Bartlett, and it is so great and I cannot recommend it enough.

Top Image: Isabel Leonard (seated) in the title role of Nico Muhly's "Marnie" with (l. to r.) Dísella Lárusdóttir, Peabody Southwell, Deanna Breiwick and Rebecca Ringle Kamarei as the Shadow Marnies. Courtesy of Ken Howard / Met Opera