Schoenberg Moves To Tinseltown In Clever New Opera

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Sara Womble, from left, Omar Ebrahim and Jesse Darden in Boston Lyric Opera’s world premiere of ‘Schoenberg in Hollywood’  by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson. (Photos by Liza Voll)
By Keith Powers

BOSTON – Ideas about Schoenberg’s music are more popular than the music itself. In Tod Machover’s Schoenberg in Hollywood, those ideas get a full cinematographic treatment.

Machover’s opera premiered Nov. 14 at the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston, the second production of the Boston Lyric Opera season. The twelve-tone composer and Tinseltown are an unlikely match — but they did indeed intersect in real life. It is that unlikely history, fueled by Machover’s deep respect for Schoenberg, that forms the basis of Schoenberg in Hollywood.

Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) conducts in a fantasy sequence.

Baritone Omar Ebrahim sang the title role, with tenor Jesse Darden and soprano Sara Womble singing multiple supporting characters. Simon Robson wrote the libretto, and the staging was directed by Karole Armitage, based on a scenario envisioned by the late Braham Murray. The elaborate video/media projections were designed by Peter Torpey. BLO music director David Angus conducted the chamber orchestra, which was substantially fortified by recorded tracks.

Machover has had a broad impact on contemporary opera — he directs the Opera of the Future group at MIT, after all. His compelling Resurrection has found productions here and abroad; a retelling of Tolstoy’s novel, it has unsurprisingly been performed multiple times in Russia. His Death and the Powers, with its robot characters, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

His City Symphonies are crowd-sourced creations that have taken place in Toronto, Perth, Detroit, Lucerne, and Edinburgh, with more planned for Boston and for the Koreas. And his work at the MIT Media Lab has brought new instruments and a host of innovative techniques to the stage.

Machover used a mostly traditional approach to Schoenberg in Hollywood — apart from the extensive recorded music and the heavy use of film in the storytelling. It was the framing of the story itself that made the opera unusual.

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Robson’s imaginative libretto pivots around the biographical facts. And more directly, it deals with Schoenberg’s own notion that his music would change the world — and not just the music world either.

Irving Thalberg (Jesse Darden), left, takes a meeting with Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim).

Set in the 1930s, the story opens with a meet-and-greet. Schoenberg receives an invitation from Irving Thalberg, head of MGM studios, to discuss a film score. The composer has fled Nazi Germany and found a home in Southern California and a professorship at UCLA. The harrowing circumstances of his immigration are part of the story but not the focus. The music is. Not Schoenberg’s actual music, although there are nods and quotes here and there. The score reflects Machover’s voice — tonal, characterful, constantly engaging. But Schoenberg’s music forms the philosophical underpinning and serves as a comic steppingstone.

The plot follows Schoenberg’s early musical training and his love for Brahms, Wagner, Beethoven, and Bach. His first marriage, his wife’s infidelity, and her death. His second marriage and exile. A few compositional milestones: the second string quartet, Pierrot Lunaire, Moses und Aron. These signposts are used to expound his ideas. The three characters alternately act out scenes, watch pre-filmed video shown on the back of the stage, or participate in an amalgam of both.

All of this might sound ponderously philosophical but instead, Machover and Robson infuse equal parts humor and parody into the tale, as realized by Armitage’s brilliant staging and choreographic treatment.

In fact, Schoenberg in Hollywood feels like Schoenberg as Hollywood. Soft shoe, Bugs Bunny, stolen melodies like “As Time Goes By,” “Happy Trails,” and “Singin’ in the Rain” — all of this was used to counterbalance the composer’s sometimes supercilious notions about his music, the world, and change. The plot-line took a while to heat up, but its genius came from never taking itself too seriously.

Omar Ebrahim’s Groucho-esque Schoenberg with Sara Womble and Jesse Darden.

Ebrahim was a physical typecast for the composer — screenshots of Schoenberg’s actual self-portraits looked just like him. The baritone sang effortlessly, and was surprisingly agile in Armitage’s active choreography and blocking. His acting set him apart, veering without hesitation from brainy musician to slapstick and back again. In one scene, Ebrahim easily adopts a Groucho persona. In another, he channels Bogie, with a lispy “Listen, sweetheart.”

Both Womble and Darden sang and acted with star quality. None of the vocal parts was particularly virtuosic; Machover’s through-composed score blended electronics, instruments, and voice without traditional arias or instrumental solos. Darden’s tenor rings clear, modest in volume for this part but beautifully phrased. Womble was a revelation, singing freely, with power when called upon (rarely). Both acted and danced, and shifted from role to role (as well as governing the props), in a way that allowed the story to take precedence.

The balance between high-mindedness and self-parody creates integrity in Schoenberg in Hollywood. Parody mollifies the dark cartoon scene recalling Schoenberg’s 1921 experiences at Mattsee, an Austrian resort that expelled him because he was Jewish, even though he had converted to Protestantism decades earlier.

That experience forms the basis for Moses und Aron, and references to that opera infuse dramatic insights. The composer relates both to Moses the misunderstood visionary and to Aron the populist communicator.

Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) recounts his first wife’s infidelity.

Machover uses Schoenberg’s first wife’s infidelity, and its revelation, to imagine some theatrical counterpoint around the creation of the groundbreaking second quartet. The blending of composition and biography — layered with serious insights, offset by parody — were essential characteristics of the opera.

Some repeated lines bring Schoenberg’s ambitions to light: “My enemies have taught me everything I know”; “I’m killing tonal music” (sung to “As Time Goes By”); “Follow me and we’ll change the world”; “I am Ulysses, a fearless traveler whose only compass is his heart.”

So much of the music was amplified that the live musicians seemed like an afterthought — that is, until they were theatrically unveiled, seated on risers behind a backstage façade, as the action came to a conclusion. For most of the performance, it was difficult to separate recorded score from amplified instrumentalists. There was no reason to try, anyway.

Schoenberg in Hollywood works splendidly as theater, and as an opera whose score allows its clever libretto to work its magic, seems likely to follow Machover’s previous successes.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.

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Keith Powers
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for Leonore Overture, Classical Voice North America, Chamber Music America, and Opera News. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.