Overstory Overture is a standalone monodrama for voice, string orchestra, marimba and electronics, a preview of a full-length opera that I am developing based on Richard Powers’ monumental novel, The Overstory. When Kyung Kang – Executive and Artistic Director of Sejong Soloists – approached me in 2021 about creating a theatrical work for their ensemble, I suggested a piece based on one of the novel’s main characters, Patricia Westerford, a scientist who discovers that trees communicate on both intimate and massive scales, and who pays a serious professional and personal price for her radical ideas. I worked with writer Simon Robson – who wrote the libretto for my 2018 opera Schoenberg in Hollywood – to craft a narrative based on Westerford’s growing recognition of the need for radical realignment of our relationship with the non-human world (resulting in Simon’s powerfully sonorous text, printed elsewhere in this program). I immediately imagined Joyce Di Donato – a close colleague and friend since our collaboration on my 1999 Resurrection opera for Houston Grand Opera, in which she sang the lead – as the perfect Patricia Westerford, and fortunately Joyce found that the theme and possibilities resonated with her. Around Joyce/Patricia, I “cast” the string players of Sejong Soloists –augmented by a Marimba with an extended lower register, all conducted by Earl Lee – as a kind of forest, moving from individual voices to an interconnected collective (underlined by Karole Armitage’s striking choreography). This ensemble speaks a language of subtle noises that reveals a wealth of melodies, harmonies and textures the closer one listens. Surrounding voice and instruments is a world of electronic sounds, created in my barn-studio and at the MIT Media Lab, sometimes providing a bridge for the transmission of “tree signaling,” at other times representing catastrophic human intervention that threatens to destroy the natural world, and finally contributing to a sonic vision of a possible merger of human and non-human.
Overstory Overture is organized into four sections, performed without a break. In the first section, LISTEN, Patricia Westerford is learning to listen to the language of the trees as they communicate underground through roots as well as through barely perceptible aerial signals. She notices the trees communicating – to each other and maybe to her – and yearns to understand. In the second section, WHO AM I?, Patricia recounts her life, her discoveries, the disbelief and hatred that her ideas about trees have provoked, and the sheer wonder of individual trees and collective forests that form vast interconnected networks of communication and support. She sings: “Do you hear the molecular telegraphy? The forest as family, the forest as song.” As the forest sings on its own, threatening sounds advance from afar, leading to the third section, CRISIS. “Petrochemical props, chainsaw and machete” burst forth to “take the breath from your baby.” Patricia sings: “Severing and suffocating…We are tearing out the lungs of the world. We are tearing out the mind of the world.” Patricia joins the forest, which lets her in. As the crisis subsides in section four, BE A TREE, Patricia and the orchestra-of-trees blend more and more, swaying in increasing harmony. Patricia invites us to “Breathe connected, breathe together,” and – tree-like – to “stay firm, stand tall, grow so slowly, bend just a little…swaying, scattering, shimmering, still…Be.” With these words, and through the music that finds equilibrium between all elements, Patricia and the orchestra-forest become one, suggesting a synergy and synthesis that could heal the world that surrounds us, and just might save us as well
Tod Machover, February 2023
“finely written ... Machover is working on a large-scale opera of the full novel, but Overstory Overture felt like a complete, self-contained work.” —New York Classical Review