“I could play to a million people. And yet…who am I?” A. Schoenberg
At the world premiere of Tod Machover’s Schoenberg in Hollywood, one could glimpse great hope even as the namesake composer’s life intersected with some of the most traumatic and violent human atrocities of the 20th century. His music — with few exceptions—reached only the cognoscenti of his time…and maybe only such in ours. Machover teleports us into the composer’s mind, showing his struggle to find creative meaning in the wake of brutal and personal loss. The Boston Lyric Opera show is also about art itself — how it defines us, challenges us, and shapes us in the face of uncertainty.
“Schoenberg’s music leads us into a realm where musical experience is a matter not of the ear but the soul alone, and at this point the music of the future begins.” W. Kandinsky
The agonizing reality of Jewish identity in the 1930’s drove Schoenberg to convert to the Lutheran faith, while his duty as a German required him to serve the Kaiser in World War I. He faced the rise of the Nazi Party, and picking the best (or worst) time, re-converted to Judaism before he and his family fled to the United States as refugees. He settled for a short time in Boston, taking a post at the Malkin Conservatory in Back Bay and moving into an apartment in Coolidge Corner. A year later, he was lured to the warmer climate of California and relocated to Los Angeles. His embrace of the Hollywood lifestyle found him playing tennis with George Gershwin and attending dinner parties with Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Mann.
The opera begins with a traditional end credit fanfare “The End.” where Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) finds himself on stage sitting with his back to the audience. A 16-piece orchestra lead by David Angus chimes in with cluster of chords as if waking up the audience. College students, Jesse Darden and Sara Womble, then enter, immediately delivering a cheeky but powerful welcoming to Schoenberg singing, “We are America. We are the new world! … Now you will have friends.” Video appears of the composer staring at the camera as he stands up to declare to the audience and to the whole world: “But my enemies taught me everything I know.”
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 that brings us up to a new scene at the office of the head of MGM, Irving Thalberg. Schoenberg mentions his latest composition, Moses and Aron, which becomes a sort of autobiography of the composer’s character. Mostly he resonated with Moses, who God tasked to be His prophet, but he was unable to find the words, while Aron’s “jazzy” side, blessed with the ability to communicate, lacked a true infinite vision of overseeing the future. When Schoenberg states to Thalberg that he never finished the 3rd Act of his composition, he sets the stage for the audience of how he shares Moses’s dilemma of being at a loss for words. Or in Schoenberg’s case, a loss for music.
Media on the screen, made in a quirky 1920s style, transcends us back to Schoenberg’s childhood where his father crafts an improvised toy-like-cello for young Schoenberg to play with. All this, while Bach’s Prelude in G Major warps itself into the young composer’s musical fantasies; blending cinematic imagery with the live action on stage.
A love scene, “Verklärte Nacht, 1899” liberally quotes Schoenberg’s legendary Transfigured Night, leading us into a mini-movie of affair between Mathilde Schoenberg and Richard Gerstl shot in a Film Noir cross-over style. Without spoiling too much I’ll quote Schoenberg’s words: “Guess the poor sap couldn’t take it. Love’s like that. Like a chord you just ain’t expectin’.”
As Schoenberg abandons tonality, reviewers start panning his subsequent creations: Pierrot Lunaire, Three Piano Pieces op. 11, Five Pieces for Orchestra op.16. Machover’s music employs brash cluster chords and spare octaves to highlight the immediacy and intensity of his solitude. In a masterful and somewhat grotesque revue scene followed with repeated lines of “chacun à son gout,” his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, come to defend their master. Even Mahler appears saying: “Schoenberg is the future!”
One of the wackiest stage moments brought us to Mattsee near Salzburg, as Machover’s score conveyed hope and promise—Aryan people are enjoying perhaps their last months of peaceful vacation. Schoenberg is denied access due to his Jewish roots and is outraged with the signs: DANGER. DEEP WATER. JEWS ONLY.
Following that, an astonishing animation in the 1930’s style shows the story of Hitler in 30 seconds. Blackshirts massacre Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto who are dressed in striped concentration camp clothes. Then the curtain line, “That’s all Volks!” leaves a disturbing premonition to the coming horrors of the Second World War.
An exaggerated potpourri of Schoenberg’s compositions blares at us while Schoenberg stands on stage revealing the “S” of the Superman logo which stands for “SUPERJEW!”
Behind the scenery onstage, the orchestra, led by David Angus, performed Machover’s music with rigor and gusto. Technology played a big role in the opera providing, at times, spooky layers of sound that exposed the depths of Schoenberg’s creative genius mind.
As Simon Robson discussed during the talk with the cast members, the alternative title to this opera could be “Arnold Schoenberg Versus the 20th Century.” Schoenberg’s words ring true today: “perhaps people might come to realize then that art is less expensive than amusement.”
The Boston Lyric Opera run concludes Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.