Simon Robson (E)
This work requires amplification, multichannel audio system, high-quality video projection and live video feed.
Emerson Paramount Center, Boston, MA
Karole Armitage, director
Conductor: David Angus
Company: Boston Lyric Opera
|Girl (plays many roles)
|Boy (plays many roles)
Time and Place
Los Angeles, California; 1935
“We are America. We are the new world. Now you are safe.”
So sing two young, hopeful, American music students to their teacher. It is 1935. Arnold Schoenberg has escaped the horror of Nazi Germany. The great innovator and self-proclaimed torch-bearer of German music now finds himself a refugee amongst the palm trees of California, playing tennis and teaching music composition at UCLA. “Once upon a time,” he muses, “the future was me. Now…it is annihilation.” How will the exiled artist move forward?
Arnold has accepted an invitation to meet wunderkind MGM producer Irving Thalberg with a view to writing music for the burgeoning film industry. “Find new audiences; find new friends,” Thalberg counsels. This young Mephistopheles offers the modernist the mass audience he has been denied: “We can tell every man’s story,” says the glamorous, ambitious spokesman for the new, universal Art of cinema.
Troubled and tempted all at once, Arnold returns to his students. “I could play to a million people. And yet…who am I?”
Before he can look forward he must look back. Unable to resist the thought-experiment, he engages with his own, innate musical playfulness : “What if?” he asks. What would the story of his life be, told in the new language of music and movies? “Play!” he tells his students.
“We will do it together,” they sing.
So, aided by his loyal students, he begins an imaginary odyssey through his past.
Childhood is a silent movie, till music arrives with the monthly magazines from which Arnold teaches himself. There follows the soft focus of friendship and musical discovery with the young composer Zemlinsky; then the moonlit, silver screen fantasy of love and courtship of Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde.
Marriage and infidelity follow; Arnold is plunged into the film noir of jealousy, a private-eye Bogart on the trail of his own misery.
As he finds his musical individuality, so the critics savage him and his colleagues laud him; he defies them with the élan of the movie musical, dancing through the pain.
Love suffers: “I have pared everything down to the essentials,” he says of his music. “You have pared me down to nothing,” sings the long-suffering Mathilde. As she dies, he pleads: “Don’t leave me alone with Arnold Schoenberg.” With her death, the world descends into the Great War.
From the ruin of Europe, Arnold begins again, armed with a new discovery: “Twelve tones only related to each other.” But in Arnold’s fantasy a new, horrific farce is unleashed: through the distorted lens of the Marx Brothers and animated cartoons, the atrocities of Europe’s anti-Semitism take over.
With the homemade-movie-happiness of a new wife, Gertrud, Arnold takes flight to Paris, and re- converts to Judaism, then, armed with a pair of Wild West revolvers – “a bullet for each tone” – Arnold-as-cowboy heads for Southern California and sanctuary. The Past finally catches up with the Present. Schoenberg in Hollywood. Schoenberg as superhero.
Now he has looked back, how will he go forward, and how to answer Thalberg’s provocative offer?
As all conventions eventually break down, so Arnold indeed finds himself “alone with Arnold Schoenberg,” but responds now with a Vision that unifies all the paradoxes of his life and work. He gives thanks, free, fearless, and ready for action.
Synopsis by Simon Robson, librettist
Wall Street Journal
“ingeniously original music”
“In Schoenberg in Hollywood the fun is in the journey”
“Full of the spiky dissonances Schoenberg loved, Machover’s score references a plethora of the earlier composer’s works, as well as films including Psycho and Singin’ in the Rain.”
Boston Musical Intelligencer
“Schoenberg in Hollywood emerges so powerfully.”
“Tod Machover’s brilliant score weaves a dense musical tapestry before tearing through it with dissonances of his own, sprinkled with electronic sound installments, it presents an array of colors and sudden transformations”
“Distinctive coloristic effects gave an often-delicate tint to each scene, almost in the spirit of a cinematographer. When Machover needed extra dramatic weight, he employed electronic sound that intensified the instrumental writing and occasionally took over completely, with great effect.”
Boston Classical Review
“Crisp, occasionally funny, and delightfully odd, Schoenberg in Hollywood examines these problems through some of the most arresting music heard in a BLO premiere in recent seasons.”
“Schoenberg’s own strange, chromatic strains are frequently the focus of Machover’s dark and brilliant score.”
I started thinking about Schoenberg in Hollywood over 20 years ago when I came across a remarkable book by Alexander Ringer called Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer As Jew. The book was a revelation. I had long admired Schoenberg’s music but didn’t know about his complex relationship to Judaism, or about how Nazi critics used his Judaism as a way of justifying their hatred for his music. I also discovered in that book the story of Schoenberg’s meeting with MGM’s Irving Thalberg – to whom he was introduced by Harpo Marx - soon after Schoenberg’s arrival in Los Angeles. All of this made me think about the interpenetration of politics and art, and about the tension between artistic purity and popular acclaim, in a fresh, broader way.
Schoenberg’s journey - musically, spiritually and politically - emerged for me as one of the great stories of our time, one that I wanted to tell. His meeting with Thalberg, poignant and comically absurd, felt like the pivot around which the arc of Schoenberg’s life could be explored. I sensed that this was an ideal story for exploring the tricky relationship between uncompromising art and mass appeal, and of whether – and how – art can change the world.
Creating this opera became a sort of obsession for me, but many thought that it was too wild a story or too impractical to produce. When Esther Nelson of Boston Lyric Opera approached me about writing a new work for Boston Lyric Opera, I told her about this Schoenberg idea and she immediately said “this is it!” I am deeply grateful to her for believing in the project and for giving me the opportunity to realize this dream.
I grew up immersed in Schoenberg’s musical world. My parents’ tastes in music were highly eclectic, and our home was filled with Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Cage, and beyond. At Juilliard, I studied with Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, both of whom had been deeply influenced by Schoenberg. When Sessions described Schoenberg’s vast importance by telling me that “Schoenberg owned the estate where Berg and Webern were the gardeners”, I knew exactly what he meant. You really can find everything in Schoenberg, much as you can in Bach. I was drawn to the deep expressivity and richness of Schoenberg’s music, to the way it absorbs the past while always feeling totally new, and to the way his music combines overwhelming emotion with powerfully rigorous - but always imaginative and non-academic - intellect.
As I found my own voice as a composer, I moved toward a simpler, more direct form of expression - identifying more with Cage than with Carter, with The Beatles more than with Boulez. But over the past 10 years or so, I have realized how much of Schoenberg’s sound, texture, complexity, and variety have influenced me, and how important his values are to me. Working on Schoenberg in Hollywood has led me to appreciate Schoenberg’s unmatchable, uncompromising integrity as an artist, along with his lifelong search for combining deeply personal vision with a profound desire to change the world.
There were many complex aspects to this project, but finding the right musical language and sound world was perhaps the most challenging of all. I wanted the work to be infused with Schoenberg but not to be a pastiche. I also wanted it to tell the history of musical language, because Schoenberg’s music evolved so much and in itself incorporated so much previous music. Lastly, I wanted to find a musical language for this opera that could be poised on the razor’s edge between accessibility and complexity, dipping from one side to the other with the slightest tweak. Not surprisingly, I had to invent my own language to do this. So most of the music in the opera is mine, although there are a few quotes from Schoenberg as well as a kind of blitz near the end with a lot of Schoenberg fragments juxtaposed, as if we were able to glimpse suddenly into his musical mind. The opera builds to a climax called “Schoenberg’s Vision,” in which I imagined what it would sound and feel like to reconcile the many opposites that Schoenberg grappled with, if only for a moment. To do this, I had to find melodies, harmonies, and textures (augmented subtly with electronics) that follow their own logic while both welcoming and illuminating Schoenberg’s own. I hope that audiences are tantalized, challenged, and delighted by this music, and go away with some tunes to hum - perhaps some of them in 12-tones. I also hope that audiences will leave the opera admiring and loving Schoenberg as much as I do. He is one of the greatest composers who ever lived and, in my view, many people still do not appreciate the breadth of his achievement or the richness of his legacy.
The title of the opera is not exactly misleading, but it is a bit sly. When I started imagining the piece, I thought that it would mostly revolve around Schoenberg’s life as an exile in the Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s. The whole opera could have been filled with tennis matches with George Gershwin and garden parties with Charlie Chaplin. But Braham Murray - my close creative collaborator on the project, as he had been on my Resurrection and Skellig operas - had the idea of using the Thalberg meeting as a framing device from which Schoenberg would reconsider his whole life…through the lens of film history! So while the opera begins and ends in Hollywood, we also journey with Schoenberg more widely through place and time.
I am very grateful to the other wonderful collaborators on this project, from the brilliant actor and writer Simon Robson who has crafted a most intricate and witty libretto, to media artist and MIT Media Lab grad Peter Torpey who has imagined projections that shift the stage from filmic to very real in a lightning flash, to Ben Bloomberg who has worked his characteristic sonic magic to blend acoustics and electronics in subtle and startling ways, to choreographer Karole Armitage who designed the movement language for the piece and then took over the direction following Braham’s passing, and to the amazing singers, musicians, production teams, student engineers and artists at the MIT Media Lab, and so many more.
Because I often invent new technologies and because many of my musical projects are quite multidisciplinary, I typically collaborate with all kinds of people, from experts to teams of graduate and undergraduate researchers, to thousands of citizens from every conceivable background in my City Symphony projects. But in this opera, it feels as if I have been collaborating with Schoenberg himself, trading with him sounds and ideas and experiences and even jokes. I have learned immeasurably from “Arnold” during this process, and I hope that what we have done in Schoenberg in Hollywood - together - would have made him smile, and sing…and maybe even dance.