Shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933 and the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin dismissed its Jewish faculty members, Arnold Schoenberg and his family left Germany for France, from which they emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Los Angeles. For the founder of the “method of composing with twelve notes which are related only to one another” (as he formally described it), his arrival in the world of Hollywood at a time when Europe’s future looked increasingly bleak had to have caused severe culture shock.
Yet he began teaching at UCLA, formed friendships with musicians of a rather different sort (such as George Gershwin), wrote a few pieces in which his compositional style was relaxed to include tonality, and generally became part of the Hollywood scene. The composer Tod Machover, an MIT professor who has written five other operas and a series of orchestral works inspired by individual cities, had the fascinating idea of making a chamber opera about the adventures and challenges Schoenberg experienced in the new world. The invigorating, eighty-minute result, Schoenberg in Hollywood, with a libretto by Simon Robson based on a scenario by the late Braham Murray, had its world premiere by the commissioning Boston Lyric Opera on Wednesday, November 14, at the Emerson Paramount Center.
Was there a true creative crisis or did Schoenberg adjust to the pleasant environs of Southern California as Europe was being torn apart? The opera suggests the latter.
The opera gets off to a lively start by reenacting a meeting Schoenberg had with the MGM producer Irving Thalberg, which was arraigned by, of all people, Harpo Marx. The opera has plenty of humorous moments, but an appearance by Harpo is not among them. Only three singers participate, one of whom plays Schoenberg and the other two, referred to as A Girl and A Boy, take a variety of roles so that the opera covers more dramatic territory than one might expect. The meeting with Thalberg, which explored the possibility of Schoenberg’s writing a film score, came to nothing, since Schoenberg recoiled at the idea that his music might be tailored to meet the needs of a film.
The opera’s subject virtually demands a musically eclectic approach, which Machover supplied with obvious enthusiasm. Music from Schoenberg’s early tonal work Verklärte Nacht is heard during a scene in which he courts his first wife, Mathilde, and quotations from Pierrot Lunaire also crop up. Once Schoenberg is in Movieland, Western films are alluded to, and we hear the clopping of horses à la Ferde Grofé, with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans making visual and musical appearances. Despite its title, most of Schoenberg in Hollywood takes place as an extended flashback recounting significant European events from Schoenberg’s biography. Among them are Mathilde’s tragic affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, an anti-Semitic incident in which Schoenberg was prohibited from swimming at a Salzburg resort, and his return to the Jewish faith after having converted to Lutheranism years before.
Eventually, these scenes begin to distract from the central issue. Maybe the opera’s creative team didn’t want to stray too far from historical fact, but a bit more poetic license would have been welcome in imagining the conflicts that went on in Schoenberg’s mind once he got to Los Angeles. Was there a true creative crisis or did Schoenberg deal with his problems while adjusting to the pleasant environs of Southern California as Europe was being torn apart? The opera suggests the latter, and that includes Machover’s music, but either way, more could have been made of Schoenberg’s suffering. To his credit, Machover keeps the listener engaged with music that often sounds Schoenbergian in its contrapuntal intricacy, but he overdoes it in keeping it good-natured and avoiding abrasiveness that might offend. Other styles could be detected in his appealing score, as well. The Girl and Boy join voices in music of Bernstein-like cheeriness; music based on quartal harmonies surfaces; and Minimalism is present, too, though more in form (i.e., repetition) than in content.
The opera could hardly have asked for a better launching than Boston Lyric Opera gave it. Everything flowed along arrestingly and uninterruptedly in Karole Armitage’s staging, based on Murray’s production concept. Simon Higlett’s set and, especially, Peter Torpey’s media and production designs, which included clips from films, were assets. As Schoenberg, the baritone Omar Ebrahim affectingly projected the composer’s status as an outsider. Sara Womble, a soprano, and Jesse Darden, a tenor, brought fresh, attractive voices to the Girl and Boy. David Angus, Boston Lyric Opera’s music director, conducted a first-rate ensemble of ten players that, in a moment of drama, was shown playing at the rear of the stage.