Why We're Obsessed With an Opera Composer

We are a culture that's always been obsessed with prodigies. We find them mystifying, awe-inspiring — and our curiosity about them is probably born out of some jealousy, too. We've followed people like Michelle Wie, Bobby Fischer, and Tavi Gevinson, and there's even a hunger for characters like Doogie Houser, M.D., who was fictional but nonetheless iconic. Whether they're chess players, musicians, or tennis pros, we seem to have some special kind of desire to watch young geniuses in action.

It seems to follow, then, that we'd similarly turn our attention to Nico Muhly. At just 32 years old, the American composer has already written music for the American Ballet Theater, Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, and, oh, he wrote a full-length opera at age 29. Prodigy status attained.

Muhly's talent has grabbed him the attention of those beyond the classical music sphere. People from all walks of life are piling in to see "Two Boys," Muhly's first full-scale opera, which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for the 2013-2014 season. The production is not entirely what you might expect when you hear "opera": It's about two young men who've met on the Internet. Greetings, Opera 2k13. Yet, the New York Times called it "Mr. Muhly’s best work yet."

There's something else about Muhly, though, that appeals to more than our obsession with people doing extraordinary things at young ages that makes us want to write about him as much as we want to write about Miley Cyrus and Jay Z. No, it's not that he has 27,000 Twitter followers. (Although we wouldn't be sad about a retweet, Nico.)

We like Muhly because he doesn't seem entirely different from other 32-year-olds we know. In many ways, he's the most human of prodigies.

On Tuesday night, Muhly spent an hour and a half in conversation with Ira Glass at the New York Public Library's LIVE from the NPYL series, during which Glass unpacked some of Muhly's history with music, played some of his compositions, and talked at length about "Two Boys."

Watching him converse with Glass, it was easy to see Muhly's passion for his craft and also his genius. His mouth literally cannot move as fast as his mind forms thoughts, but he also demonstrated a humility and self-awareness and genuine humor that makes him someone with whom we can identify — and might want to get a beer with — not just gawk at.

"Composers are almost anti-socialized," Muhly laughed. "We're supposed to be crazy naked geniuses in the woods with an STD."

He followed the remark with a "your mom" joke a while later ("Your mom's opera is dirty!"), and also said that crazy sex dungeons have nothing on the intensity of the opera blogosphere. This is, of course, coming from the same man who a few minutes earlier uttered the phrase, "One of the things that drives me nuts about modern church music...".

You didn't have to be at the event to have experienced Muhly's zaniness, which shines through on his Twitter feed, a balance of expected music-centric tweets and things like:

It's this unique blend of self-consciousness, comedy, and raw talent that's made Muhly more than a "crazy naked genius" on a pedestal, and that's helping to bring an art form like opera into the cognizance of an audience that generally wouldn't touch it. He's fun to follow, yes, but most importantly, he's doing damn good things for culture.

Images: Jori Klein/The New York Public Library