Nico Muhly’s work extends past the concert hall into movie theaters and rock venues, beyond the revolving “New Music” audience into the consciousness of classical, pop and indie music lovers. Nico is one of very few young composers who have managed to break through the glass ceiling of “New Music” onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Dr. Coco Lazaroff

is a Grande Dame of philanthropy in Manhattan. Dr. Lazaroff’s visionary prowess for the avant garde has made her a significant persona in the world of opera and the perfect patron for Muhly. In addition to their addictive, quick witted and fascinating personalities they share a love for the Opera, working together to assemble Nico’s Met Debut and present the first of Peter Gelb’s workshop/commission projects.

JAY WADLEY: You are both so deeply connected to the world of Opera. What was your first operatic experience?

NICO MUHLY: Your first opera will just change your life. Nothing is as good as your first opera. Mine was The Marriage of Figaro. I was ten or eleven with my parents in some weird Swiss town. It was a confusingly bizarre Swiss production. The thing about opera is that even if something drives you kind of crazy, it’s still kind of great.

COCO LAZAROFF: First time I ever saw an opera I was thirteen or fourteen years old in Philadelphia. The Metropolitan Opera would come occasionally and so I saw this opera that started at four o’clock. Some guy took me…

JAY WADLEY: Like a date?

COCO LAZAROFF: If you wanna call him that, but the point is, I said I’d be home by seven, and I didn’t know anything, but it began at like four. It was something by this guy Wagner (laughs), this thing called Tristan and Isolde. Of course my parents were very worried about me and called the police because I didn’t get home until ten o’ clock! (laughs) I was told if you stick to the end you’ll be rewarded. I didn’t even know who Wagner was. I didn’t speak German then (laughs).


JAY WADLEY: But what is it on sort of a core level that makes opera so attractive for you?

COCO LAZAROFF: It is a combination of all the arts. It is music. It is theater. It is ballet. It is everything that all the arts are. When you put them in one bowl, opera comes out. When they all work, it’s a masterpiece.

JAY WADLEY: And what’s your background?

COCO LAZAROFF: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I went to school there, and I left and I never went back. I love New York. I went to Temple and I graduated. I was actually a dentist. This is the truth, honestly. They never told you, but when you graduate they tell you out of all the professions, dentists have the highest suicide rate. I don’t know…I don’t want to find out (laughs). I was accepted to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and I would have had to live with my parents for four more years, and I didn’t want to, so I just left. I got out (laughs).

JAY WADLEY: What led you to become so interested in the arts?

COCO LAZAROFF: Well, when I was a dentist I would only have one patient on Saturday, and I would keep them for three hours while they played the opera. I would do bridge work on the patient and take my time… I loved it (laughs).

JAY WADLEY: You listened on the radio?

COCO LAZAROFF: Yeah, of course! Every Saturday. The only problem was that during the musical climaxes, I’d have to be careful of what I was doing! (laughs)

JAY WADLEY: You could correlate dentist procedures to music. How funny!

COCO LAZAROFF: Oh, absolutely! You had to be very careful otherwise you’d never know where I’d end up.

NICO MUHLY: Something in Faust would be good…(laughs)

JAY WADLEY: Were you raised on opera?

COCO LAZAROFF: I was raised on classical music – listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the one good thing we had.

JAYWADLEY: So did you study music?

COCO LAZAROFF: No. When you had to go to dental school you had to concentrate on that thing. You had to give up everything at that time. I used to play tennis too. The reason I went to dental school is because the family wanted a doctor in the family, and I could get out the earliest.

JAY WADLEY: So what led you to become a patron?

COCO LAZAROFF: Well, number one, I could afford it. I was trying to get out of being a dentist, so I began investing in real estate. It wasn’t that hard because back then you could do it dollar down and pay the rest over the years. There was a building boom then in the ‘70s. They were good years and I did well with my investments.

JAY WADLEY: So then how did you decide to become a patron at the Met?

COCO LAZAROFF: I have subscriptions to pretty much every arts organization in New York City, and I decided to go with the Met because they are hands down the best organized. They were so far above every other organization twenty years ago. They’re still the best-run organization as far as where you can stand. All the others try to replicate the Met.

JAY WADLEY: What makes it such a wonderful organization?

COCO LAZAROFF All these other places, they have one person in development. The Met has a full organization. They know what they’re doing.

NICO MUHLY: What’s interesting about the Met and Carnegie Hall is that in a lot of cases the excellence shown from an artistic standpoint is directly mirrored by the excellence in artistic administration. Any department you go to at the Met is SO good. If you go to the painting people, they’re insane. You realize that they’re on top of it. People everywhere are doing their jobs at a really high level. People in these organizations have a sense of pride for their work no matter what it is they are contributing. The papers are stapled at forty- five degree angles so you can open them. It’s so stupid, but it’s so important (laughs).

COCO LAZAROFF: The Met is by far the best-run arts organization I’ve ever encountered.

JAY WADLEY: And you Nico—what’s your background? You’re from Vermont.

NICO MUHLY: It’s boring! Consult the Internet. There’s been a ton of shit written about that. It’s really sad.

JAY WADLEY: Maybe talk about the transition period post-Juilliard?

NICO MUHLY: I was doing copy work, and designer work, and I barely made it. I lived in a dirt-cheap apartment. I thought, what if this is the year the following things happen: I won’t take any money from new music places, and I’m not gonna fucking beg for grants.

JAY WADLEY: Yes, and they expect you to have a topic for the entire piece. What’s a topic for a twenty-minute music piece?

NICO MUHLY: I don’t know! Like, these notes in this order (laughs). It makes you crazy. As a composer you get addicted. You write the press release first, and then you write the piece. So that year I was like, “Fuck it,” and went over a ton of choral music for myself and other people…then I started thinking about trying to record stuff, and I met Val here, and it was a bunch of random things. I said yes to everything. And he said, “Come to Iceland,” And I said okay!

JAY WADLEY: I think that’s important for young composers to hear and know about. Did Julliard prepare you to compose in the real world?

NICO MUHLY: Not completely. You’re there just to learn technique, and that itself is not a practical pursuit. There was something kind of romantic about it being so unpractical. And there is a lot to be said for developing technique. You are ultimately working to develop great music. The thing I can’t bear is when kids don’t do enough harmony or counterpoint.

COCO LAZAROFF: It has to have several things. Firstly, it has to have a story, and it has to have music. It can’t be just a story without music or music without a story. Two Boys is the first opera about the 21st century because it’s about the Internet.

JAY WADLEY: How did the two of you meet? How did you come to be working on this opera together? And how did you, Coco, come to be supporting Nico’s creative endeavor?

NICO MUHLY: Well, we met at the Met.

COCO LAZAROFF It was when you were doing Dark Sisters a few years ago?


COCO LAZAROFF: That was probably the first time we met—before you were at the Met. Right, Nico?

JAY WADLEY: That was with Gotham Chamber Opera? Coco, are you involved with Gotham as well?

COCO LAZAROFF: Actually that’s how…I didn’t even know what Gotham Chamber Opera was, but the Met and I already had a commitment to produce Two Boys several years in advance. I learned that if I wanted to see something Nico had done before, I should look at this little opera company, Gotham Chamber, that’s doing Dark Sisters. So then I had to find out their phone number (laughs). I didn’t even know what Gotham Chamber was. When I think of Opera, I think of the Met.


NICO MUHLY: One of the interesting things about Opera in New York is how powerful a presence the Met can be. It’s completely different from working with the smaller companies— actually, really any other company.

COCO LAZAROFF I love the Met. The first opera I did at the Met was La Gioconda. That was my production. I liked that primarily because that has the best ballet that’s ever been written for an opera. Everyone knows “Hello Mother, Hello Father” (Dance of the Hours), but when the opportunity came that La Gioconda was available, for some reason nobody wanted to touch it. Basically, when you start at the Met you’re the last person they want to ask. They go down the pecking order. And all the leftovers are what the newcomers get, and I was serving as a newcomer. When La Giaconda became available I grabbed it because I thought it was good. Prior to this one with Nico, I was doing Hansel and Gretel, which is coming back next year.

JAY WADLEY: How did you come to love contemporary opera?

COCO LAZAROFF: Well, I’m picky. I think one of the greatest operas was written around 1957— Dialogues of the Carmelites…I saw all five productions. (laughs)

JAY WADLEY: What is it that makes it a masterpiece in your opinion?

COCO LAZAROFF: It has to have several things. Firstly, it has to have a story, and it has to have music. It can’t be just a story without music or music without a story. Two Boys is the first opera about the 21st century because it’s about the Internet.

NICO MUHLY: What’s actually happening in Two Boys is very old-fashioned. The fundamental thing is people are using disguise to gain position. Then there is this modern thing called the Internet rooting it in the now.

COCO LAZAROFF When I really decided to do this opera was during a party for The Tempest. I knew it was coming up the following season. I knew if that wasn’t too bad that Nico’s would be better.

NICO MUHLY: The Tempest is one of my favorite operas…

JAYWADLEY: When we speak about opera, you always make the same point that you feel as though people should be pressing opera, pushing the boundaries, taking it farther.

NICO MUHLY: Well at the Met specifically… it’s not like in the Netherlands where they’ll do a production of Don Giovanni set in fifteen whore houses in Thailand and everyone is bloody.

JAY WADLEY Do you feel the Met can pushing opera into a more modern thing?

COCO LAZAROFF The people who go to the opera are getting a year older every year, which means we’re not attracting younger people.

JAY WADLEY What about education and tickets for kids?

NICO MUHLY: I’m a big believer in taking first-timers to the opera. I was doing my taxes and I realized I’ve spent a ton of money on providing that experience for people— like fuck it, I’ll get some great tickets.

COCO LAZAROFF: Well, I’ve been supporting the opera for years. The Met has been having trouble for some years now—that’s very obvious. The audience is getting older and older and dying, basically, and it consists of whoever was there before Peter Gelb – you know, the board decided that they had to find a way to get young people involved. I’d been looking for another opera to get involved with, and when this opportunity came up, it was by far the most exciting thing I’ve seen in a long while. Of course in the beginning there was no opera to hear. It was programmed several years ahead, and like many of these sorts of things they had to workshop it and figure out if they wanted to do it at all.

JAY WADLEY: I read an article about Peter Gelb and how he developed a program to get opera compositions to improve through a workshop process. This is more of a Broadway practice isn’t it?

NICO MUHLY: First of all, when you think about big productions, in a sense they always go through a similar process of multiple first performances. We no longer live in a time where you can get away with not work-shopping a production in one sense or another. Even though this had a wonderful production in London, we of course learned from that production and saw what was for better or for worse. Like even some stuff we liked, I was like, “Err I don’t know if this is working.” Sometimes you see things that are awesome, and other things that you thought were going to be the best things in the world…well, you wonder, “Why is this taking so long?”

JAY WADLEY: How do you guys feel about the current state of classical music and opera in America? What’s working and what’s not working? There seems to be a shift with how young composers are composing.

NICO MUHLY: My sense is that it relates to a general problem with corporate-ness. The thing about composers, which we have as a luxury, is that they were sort of trained to make something out of nothing. If there’s absolutely no money to do something, you can still do it. And if there is a ton of money to do something, you can still do it. Composers are resourceful.

COCO LAZAROFF There are a lot of young composers composing music; I don’t know how they work. Each is resourceful in their own way. It’s instinct.

NICO MUHLY:In America we’re so acutely aware of who is paying for things, but in Europe that is not the case. It affects the culture surrounding it…not in any bad way… it’s interesting though that they don’t know how to ask for money.

JAY WADLEY That has to be an enormous amount of pressure to have your opera premiere in London, and then at the Met.

NICO MUHLY: It is a lot of pressure, but it’s helped I think by being involved with the Met. The Met structure feels much more supportive. You get the community of the Met, which is…like how many people are on the board—sixty or so? What I’m trying to encourage over the next few months is that this piece kind of belongs to everybody.

COCO LAZAROFF: Did you really study the critic’s response from London?

NICOMUHLY: Nononono.Andhere’s why…I used to read everything, like, obsessively. A couple of years ago a thing happened to me in England where they sent a journalist to my place in New York, and the thing that he wrote said it was amazing—a total love poem—but on Saturday they sent a different reporter to the show, and he was like, “This is the most overhyped performance!” It’s a blood sport. To answer your question Nico- I try to avoid it. Really, it’s not my job to be too worried about it. I took a lot of criticism from people I trust. You can’t control it. People are going to describe opera in a variety of terrifying words.

JAY WADLEY Why did you pick this topic? Do you feel that this fits into the tradition of opera?

NICO MUHLY: I’m the least strategizing person. I have no ambition. I’m just obsessive. My mind is programmed to take a little thing and, work at it until it becomes a huge thing. This story is something I became obsessed with. Like online fighting, so great, and just like five thousand pages of delicious biting stuff. So I found this story, and I was, like, this is such an opera; he was thirteen. He invented stock characters in the same way Italian operas have stock characters, and he also gave them all spelling conventions. What’s interesting is how easy it is to do and how hard it is to disbelieve. By writing with someone online, you can achieve intimacy that even surpasses the necessities of real interaction. I have a friend who lives in Seattle—we met online—and weirdly I don’t really care about his life, or he mine.

JAY WADLEY: Why do you think people are able to open up in that sort of way?

NICO MUHLY: Well, I think you’re freed from the tyranny of ones own rotting corpse (laughs). You’re free from all the bullshit of where you’re at and what you’re doing when what you understand is that you’re writing to a dark space. For me the most romantic notion is like that rover thing they sent to Mars ten years ago that’s still there. Or like if you’re in the North Sea there are these lighthouses that send, like, Morse code across the ocean—and oh god, that’s so great! I’m still here. Are you there? And that’s it! Remember Wall-E? I was weeping! A condition where you’re not asking anything specific—you’re just asking if someone is there. I have a fucked-up sleep schedule, but sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone just being like, are you awake? So to answer your question old story, new syringe.

JAY WADLEY: To that point, how did you come across that specific material for Two Boys and the concept as a whole? What made you decide to focus on it?


NICO MUHLY: What’s interesting is we didn’t have the Internet, and then all of a sudden we did. It’s like the world transformed in a way overnight. You could project yourself into this world—create a new persona for yourself. This opens up a new world of possibilities, of people wielding power and assuming new roles… and what was interesting for me too was that people were fascinated with it…It was kind of like this boy created a damsel in distress. He wrote an Italian opera and then deployed it by himself. The Met had me in to discuss the new project, and all I said was, “Remember that time when that kid did that thing on the Internet!”

JAY WADLEY: And he fell for it. He was like, “Sold!” You mentioned you had a pretty clear idea of your ideas before you even started.

NICO MUHLY: We sat down and said, “Okay, what’s the two-sentence version of this opera?” And then we said, “Okay, what’s the two-paragraph version of this opera?” And it created this structure. Sometimes for me operatic stories can be too complicated or too simple. I used to go to a lot of operas because I wanted to see the stagecraft. Go into any opera—every city has an opera. One time in the Netherlands, I went into the theater, sat down, and the curtain opened on a diner on Mars and people were in roller skates (laughs). It was so great! I’ve never been happier.

JAYWADLEY: Howdidyoucomeacross the people you were collaborating with, and what was the process?

NICO MUHLY: It was really simple because Peter Gelb said he wanted Bartlett Sher to do this, and Craig Lucas was going to write it and I only knew him as a playwright. I had seen Bart’s production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met, and I thought, that’s great. I independently was just starting to work on the video for the tour, which was extraordinary. You know what? They’re all tall! (laughs) Short people are so shady. (laughs) So the workshop…that’s a strange word. Some people think it’s a verb. Essentially we just decided it was sing- throughs…because workshops – well – that’s the way you fuck up an opera, right? It has to unfold in time, and the music has to be that, and assist that, and there’s no way to know how that’s going to work if you’re working outside of real time.

NICO MUHLY: There’s a sense that you’re in it and not in it (workshops). Three of my people from the workshop are now in the show, which is awesome. The first workshop was fine. If it had gone on a stage it would have been fine. The second was good…the third was really good, and it helped so much in getting it onto the stage. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of new dramatic work that clearly is great, and you end up thinking, “Why the fuck is this so long?” So what’s frustrating about the workshop process is that I think there is a sense where it is like a Broadway thing where people are trying to change the plot, but it wasn’t like that at all – it was just getting the operatic legible. That’s what it was. There was very little plot intervention.

JAY WADLEY: What is your schedule – how do you build a production from nothing to be a finished product?

NICO MUHLY: I can show it to you. It’s not consistent at all. It’s really kind of a process of layering information; we’ve now layered in this movement, and then that bit, and then you just hope everyone remembers (laughs).

JAY WADLEY: Do you find it hard to focus on the music when there are other things going on around you?

NICO MUHLY: Well, yeah, especially because I’m such a crazy person. Although, at the Met, I’ve met already like fifteen people who are even crazier than me. Which is great! I hate that feeling of being the craziest one in the room. But at the Met, it’s like a club. (laughs)

JAY WADLEY: Can you talk a little bit about working with the video designer?

NICO MUHLY: Well video is weird. It can be used as backdrop but also in a way to answer stagecraft problems.

COCO LAZAROFF: They’ve been improving the production each time.

NICO MUHLY: They’ve figured out what to do in those transitions. The thing is all about the transitions. One of the great things about video is that you can count on making really fast transitions from space to space. We were like, we can literally treat this cinematically, and once we decided that we could, we really got into the DNA of the piece. Before we even looked at how the piece was going to look like, we thought, is it possible to have some system that one sentence can happen in memory, and the next would be in the present in the interrogation room? With video we can do this all the time. So that’s really great. And so that was how we layered in a lot of the technology into the DNA of the piece. Also if you use the video sort of as an architectural element, it can crumble and explode, so then you can write transitions that sort of melt. In the second act, anything you thought was tangible space starts to get a little blurry. Then you have a sense that these people who are telling you to “kill yourself” on the web are actually in the room with you.

I can’t think of a single opera that makes sense…like what, you think your boyfriend of three years is going to show up without a mustache and you’re not going to know who he is? (laughs) But literally, what is that? So absurd! There are so many things in opera that we just check out because there is always this other great shit going on. So, I was worried a little bit about those things. I want there to be a person, a place, a time and a thing. It doesn’t have to be a real thing. I just want it to be real enough. The wonderful thing about Opera is how it can transport us – take us away from the mundane and ordinary.