Nico Muhly’s Marnie—a psychological thriller based on Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, which also inspired a film by Alfred Hitchcock—had its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on October 19 and runs through November 10. In advance of the opening, the composer spoke with the Met’s Matt Dobkin about his newest opera.
Why Marnie? What makes this story a good candidate for operatic treatment?
The basic outline of the story is that there’s a woman who has a pattern, which is to get a job, get the code for the company’s safe, steal the money, run, and change her identity. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, she gets caught by one of the bosses, and instead of turning her in, he blackmails her into marrying him. So then she enters into this state of sexual servitude and confusion. There’s great psychoanalytical drama in terms of why she’s in this constant state of shifting identities.
As a composer, how do you communicate that internal drama?
It’s great to have a character with so many different registers—what she’s saying, what she’s thinking, and the immediate and deeper reasons for what she’s saying and thinking. What I’ve done is to have the orchestra and the chorus function as her anxiety. Specifically, within the chorus, there’s a semi-chorus of four women called Shadow Marnies who represent not just her anxieties, but also other possibilities and other characters inside her head.
Who do you think Marnie really is?
Well that’s what’s so interesting to me about her. There isn’t a word for what she is. You can try to say she’s a sociopath, or she’s a kleptomaniac, or whatever else you choose, but none of that is quite right. In the second act, there is actually a psychoanalysis scene, but we never get to a diagnosis. We never get to “This is what she is.”
What was the biggest hurdle for you?
One of the main plot points and emotional centerpieces of the second act is a foxhunt. I really didn’t know how I was going to do it, other than that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to have people going across the stage clacking coconuts together. Eventually, we used the music and the chorus and the projections to suggest visual things, but much less literally than the rest of the setting. There’s offstage percussion and special instruments to create an earthbound atmosphere, and you hear the horse-hooves not as coconuts but as these kind of distant tremors.
Why was Isabel Leonard, who sings Marnie, the right person for this role?
Marnie has to be alluring and completely present, yet also untouchable. And I feel like that’s something Isabel has always been good at. She and I were at Juilliard around the same time, and even then she had this effortlessness that was legend. When I told other Juilliard friends that she was going to be Marnie, they said, “Oh, right. Obviously.”