Nico Muhly to go back to the future with Met premiere of “Marnie”

October 20, 2018
By Wynne Delacoma

Isabel Leonard stars in the title role of Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” which will have its U.S. premiere Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Opera has a long, honorable tradition of using stories inspired by novels. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor channeling Sir Walter Scott, Poul Ruders’ version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The list is wide and varied.

But opera based by novels already transferred to celluloid by high-profile Hollywood directors? Now that’s something new.

Nico Muhly has taken up the challenge with Marnie, which was presented last year by the English National Opera and arrives at the Metropolitan Opera Friday night.

Based on a 1961 novel by Winston Graham, the story inspired one of Alfred Hitchcock’s signature psychological thrillers, a 1964 film starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Transferring the action to 1950s America, Hitchcock’s Marnie tells Graham’s tale of a young, troubled women with a mysterious past. Assuming different identities, and stealing money to get by, she is blackmailed into marriage by an older man determined to untangle her damaged psyche. Brimming with sex, lies and emotional angst, it’s an ideal story for both the big screen and the opera house.

Isabel Leonard sings the title role at the Met, with a cast that includes Christopher Maltman as Marnie’s husband and Denyce Graves as her ice-cold mother. Nicholas Wright wrote the libretto, and Robert Spano conducts the production directed by Michael Mayer.

Marnie is Muhly’s second Met commission. His first, from 2011, was Two Boys, also presented by ENO and the Met.

Adapting Graham’s novel was Mayer’s idea, said Muhly. He and Mayer had worked together on a small project and talked about collaborating on an opera one day.

Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

“I was living in London when Michael emailed me,” said Muhly.  “It was late 2013 or early 2014, and I had just read some Winston Graham. His Poldark [historical] novels had just been adapted by the BBC, so he was fresh in my mind. I read Marnie and thought Michael’s idea was total genius.”

“It has all the things an opera should have,” Muhly continued. “It has a sense of danger and mystery and deception. For me, so much of theater is about lying: people hiding their feelings or lying about who they are, or what they do—small and big lies, lies and misunderstandings. This story is the motor, people who can’t tell the truth. That’s dramatic and certainly operatic.”

Muhly was also excited to work on a bigger scale than that of Two Boys. That opera was based on the true story of two young men who develop a fatal relationship via the internet. A complicated ensemble piece, it offered Muhly little opportunity to write large-scale choruses or arias.

“But in order to fool people, Marnie has to exist in a [larger] society, so you have a reason for a big chorus,” he said. “It was immediately clear to me that it would function in a completely different vocal and dramatic way from Two Boys. I thought it was a really good challenge for me personally. I don’t want to write the same piece twice.”

The book, rather than the Hitchcock movie, is the opera’s main inspiration. Hitchcock changed some plot points and slimmed down Graham’s larger cast of characters.

“The book and the movie are quite, quite different,” said Muhly. “We’re much closer to the novel. The movie is sort of ‘inspired by…’ “

Though Leonard knew the story mainly because of Hitchcock’s movie, she deliberately decided to focus on Graham’s novel.

“I knew Hitchcock had made his movie based on the book, and that was reason enough for me to say yes to playing such a complex character,” she said in an email conversation. “However, I chose specifically not to see the film.  I didn’t want to be influenced by Hitchcock’s perception of the character or story. I feel it may be different than my viewpoint, and I would rather try to create the role with the incredible team that we have had from the ground up.”

Hitchcock’s movie has been in the spotlight recently. In her 2016 biography, Tippi Hedren revealed that Hitchcock, then in his 60s, was sexually obsessed with her when she starred in his 1963 movie The Birds and Marnie the following year.He sabotaged her career, she said, when she refused his advances. As the #MeToo movement exploded in Hollywood in 2017, bringing down Harvey Weinstein and other powerful players, Hedren’s accusations resurfaced.

Even without the Hedren-Hitchcock backstory, Muhly’s Marnie raises sensitive issues in this #MeToo era. Marnie’s husband manipulates her mercilessly, ostensibly to help her deal with her troubled past. The opera’s world premiere last November landed just as women’s charges of sexual abuse were rocking worlds stretching from Hollywood to Washington.

“When very important societal reckonings happen and you’re making art at the time,” said Muhly, “it always chimes. In this case, it chimes quite loudly. This adds another layer. We’re not playing Marnie as a frigid woman; she’s incredibly complicated. [Her husband’s] twistedness is so put on display in the opera. So much of what she does is in defiance of how she feels treated by men.”

Muhly’s chorus includes a quartet of women who surround Marnie and sing in the pure, focused tones of early music polyphony.

“We call them the Marnettes,” said Muhly in a wry aside, “and they represent her past identities.” Muhly also gives the opera’s leading characters signature solo instruments–oboe for Marnie, trombone for her husband, viola for her mother.

Lynne Page’s choreography reflects Marnie’s plight with the men coming in and out of her life.

“We have a team of dancers who move furniture and the sliding elements of the set,” said Muhly. “They’re all men and they’re all in suits. They represent this kind of male gaze that antagonizes her. Within her own mind, they are always looking at her.”

Leonard felt “responsible towards Marnie as a character and as a woman.” But she and Maltman didn’t want to tell the story “through a #MeToo lens.

“Marnie’s relation with [her husband] is very layered, not black and white. Christopher and I were adamant that their relationship be seen as painfully complex and human. I want those things to be in the forefront and allow the audience to delve into their own thoughts about it without passing judgment too quickly.”

The Met’s production is essentially the same seen last year in London. But Muhly and Wright decided to cut one aria for Marnie and add another.

“Right at the end we had what seemed to be an unnecessary aside,” said Muhly. “We were telling, not showing. And then, in another place, we jumped in time in a way that was kind of jarring. So at the top of Act II we added an aria for her, which felt really, really smart. This ability to have the opera done twice within a year has been incredibly useful.”

Marnie opens at the Metropolitan Opera Friday night and runs through November 10.

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