Today the Boston Lyric Opera presents the world premiere of “Schoenberg in Hollywood,” a new opera by Tod Machover, the Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. Performances will run through Nov. 18.
“Schoenberg in Hollywood” is inspired by the life of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg after he fled Hitler’s Europe in the 1930s. After moving first to Boston and then to Los Angeles, Schoenberg sought connection with his new culture through music. He forged a friendship with famous comedian Harpo Marx, who introduced him to MGM’s Irving Thalberg, who in turn offered him the opportunity to compose a score for the film “The Good Earth.”
Schoenberg ultimately turned down the commission, rejecting the lure of more money and greater fame in favor of his artistic integrity (and after proposing highly unrealistic artistic and financial terms). In doing so, Schoenberg chose a path of fidelity to his heritage and his musical identity — a decision that pitted change against tradition, art against entertainment, and personal struggle against public action.
Machover’s opera is bookended by the Thalberg meeting, after which the fictional Schoenberg goes off to make a film about his own life. This imagined creation follows the narrative of Schoenberg’s historical journey up to a point, then diverges in a wild fantasy to imagine a different path had Schoenberg been able to reconcile opposing forces. Drawing on inspirations ranging from Jewish liturgical music to Bach and a World War I soundscape to contemporary 20th century music, Machover illustrates Schoenberg’s personal evolution through a synthesis of shifting influences.
“I immersed myself in Schoenberg’s world through his extensive — and incredible — writings, his music, his paintings, through visiting his amazing archives in Vienna, and by speaking with many people who knew him,” Machover explains. “But I grew up with Schoenberg’s music, so have been thinking about this for a very long time. It is part of me.”
Machover also drew on his own experience as a composer in a rapidly changing world to inform his interpretation of Schoenberg’s musical and personal journey.
“The work explores one man’s journey to move millions to social and political action while remaining deeply thoughtful and thoroughly ethical,” Machover says. “The underlying artistic, activist, and ethical questions raised in this opera are ones that we ask every day at the Media Lab.”
The opera is also uniquely informed by Machover’s dual roles as artist and technologist. The opera blends reality and fantasy, combining live singers and actors with diverse media, and acoustic sound, with complex electronics spread throughout the theater, while incorporating physical stage effects that modify perspective and perception in unusual ways.
“The Media Lab is the only environment I know where the forms and technologies of this opera could have been imagined and developed,” Machover says.
A polymath and inventor, Schoenberg never earned a degree from any academic or musical institution, but became the top composition professor at the renowned Berlin Conservatory of Music (before being expelled immediately upon Hitler’s rise to power). His depth of knowledge informed but never limited his own musical explorations. His invention of 12-tone technique, which Schoenberg described as “a method of composing with 12 tones which are related only with one another,” changed the face of Western music in the 20th century and beyond.
“He invented not only music but all kinds of unusual things, like a new notation system for tennis games (designed to annotate his son’s expert playing), contraptions to draw his own customized music manuscript paper, a curriculum to train movie composers in a purely sonic art, a painting technique to allow him to depict his inner mental state rather than outside physical features in a series of self-portraits,” says Machover. “As an intellect and creator, Schoenberg would have fit right into the Media Lab.”
In celebration not only of the opera’s premiere but also of the Media Lab’s informal adoption of Schoenberg, the lab is now hosting an exhibition on “Schoenberg in Hollywood” in the lobby gallery of Building E14. Videos and archival materials trace Schoenberg’s journey, including materials on loan from the Schoenberg Center in Vienna, most of which have never before been shown in the Boston area. The exhibition also serves as a companion to the opera, offering a listening station, a video trailer of one of the opera’s climactic moments, some of Machover’s own musical sketches, and an illustrated timeline juxtaposing events in Schoenberg’s life with scenes and sounds from Machover’s opera.
“The exhibition is a resonant companion to the opera, useful whether experienced before or after a performance,” explains Machover. “But is also meant to stand alone to introduce the art and life of this remarkable creator to the MIT community and beyond, and to tell at least a bit of the story about why this unusual new opera grew out of inspiration from Arnold Schoenberg … and the MIT Media Lab itself.”
“Schoenberg in Hollywood” runs Nov. 14-18 at the Emerson Paramount Theater in Boston. The Media Lab’s exhibition is currently open to the public and will run through April 30.