“Schoenberg in Hollywood” composer Tod Machover
“Schoenberg in Hollywood” composer Tod Machover
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file

FALL ARTS PREVIEW 2018

Schoenberg at the movies

“The Enigma of Modern Music Arrives.” 

So declared a rather ominous headline in Musical America on Nov. 19, 1933, above an image of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, his wife, and their baby daughter, posing on the decks of the Ile de France. Schoenberg’s face bears a distant expression masked by a duly enigmatic half-smile. He had escaped Hitler’s Germany, yet he had done so, as he later put it, “feeling the wrench in my very bones.”  

The great atonal pioneer was in fact among the first of Europe’s artistic luminaries to flee the Third Reich and find refuge in the United States, ultimately settling in Los Angeles, where he lived until his death in 1951. Having been forced out of the most respected musical teaching post in Germany, the composer fashioned a poignant second act in a very foreign City of Dreams, a place that his fellow émigré Bertolt Brecht described as a “mausoleum of easy-going.” In Schoenberg’s life, it was a period — full of musical, political, and spiritual convulsions — that could one day become the stuff of a great historical novel. Already this fall, it arrives in the form of a newly minted opera.

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“Schoenberg in Hollywood,” a work by Boston-based composer Tod Machover, will receive its world premiere Nov. 14 at Emerson College’s Paramount Center. A commission of Boston Lyric Opera, the piece — which the composer describes as “quirky, unusual, highly personal” — is at once an earnestly admiring tribute and an unconventional biographic fantasia, one that imagines Schoenberg looking back on his own life through the celluloid conventions of his adoptive home. 

At first blush the topic may seem a departure for Machover, who leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group and whose most recent opera, “Death and the Powers,” featured singing robots. But Machover grew up immersed in Schoenberg’s music and later studied with two of the composer’s leading American torchbearers, Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions. Even as his compositional voice went its own way, Machover developed a deep appreciation for what he called, in an e-mail exchange with the Globe, “the deep expressivity of Schoenberg’s music, its richness and diversity and freshness . . . the combination of overwhelming emotion with powerfully rigorous — but always imaginative and non-academic — intellect.”

Over the years, as Machover learned more about the extraordinary life behind the notes, his interest in the composer only deepened. “Schoenberg’s journey,” he says, “emerged for me as one of the great stories of our time and one that I wanted to tell.”

A few years ago, after receiving a green light from BLO’s general and artistic director Esther Nelson, Machover turned to a longtime creative partner, the British theater director Braham Murray, as director. Murray in turn conceived of a dramatic scenario that could serve as a vehicle for bringing Schoenberg’s life to the stage. As a point of departure, the opera would incorporate a real-life event, one of the most fabled cultural collisions in the history of modern music: the 1935 meeting of Schoenberg and Irving G. Thalberg, the legendary executive and producer at MGM. 

It was a moment when many emigres of illustrious reputation were making previously undreamed of concessions to simply get by in Depression-era America. Stravinsky would later write a “Circus Polka” for elephants. One of Vienna’s most illustrious orthopedic surgeons allegedly took on work as a Los Angeles masseur. And Schoenberg, who was teaching long hours, was persuaded by friends to consider the financial freedom that might come with a well-paying commission for a Hollywood film score. 

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And so he agreed to a meeting at MGM. For his part, Thalberg hoped the great enigma of modern music would consent to create the score for his next would-be blockbuster, an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth.” Apparently the meeting got off to a rocky start after Thalberg mentioned having recently heard Schoenberg’s “lovely music” on the radio. “I don’t write ‘lovely’ music,” the composer shot back. And things did not improve from there.  

Schoenberg attacked the quality of most film music, and complained about the numbing uniformity of the dialogue. If he were to write music for a new film, he told Thalberg, he would insist on complete control of its entire sound world — including the actors’ lines. Schoenberg seemed to be hoping they would declaim the script in the expressionist speech-song style of his own “Pierrot Lunaire.” Surely that was a bridge too far for Thalberg, but he nonetheless insisted that Schoenberg go home with a copy of the screenplay, and a request to think more about it. 

Here is where “Schoenberg in Hollywood” departs on its own dramatic journey. 

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As the opera’s librettist, Simon Robson, explained in a phone interview, “because Schoenberg just had the meeting with Thalberg, and the new language of cinema was on his mind, and at the same time he is finding a new home, we wondered, what would it be if he were to relive his life to date — but in movie conventions? To see his life as a movie?” 

And so, after depicting an imagined version of the Schoenberg-Thalberg meeting, the opera “plays back” or alludes to various episodes of Schoenberg’s life: his birth into a Jewish home during a hope-filled moment in European Jewish history, his conversion to Protestantism as a young composer, his “emancipation of dissonance,” his discovery of the 12-tone method, his rise to world fame, his confrontations with anti-Semitism, and his bitter journey into exile. And, in what is perhaps the opera’s most unconventional move, these dream-like episodes are presented through the prisms of classic Hollywood film styles, from silent movies to film noir to westerns. 

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Robson concedes there is a deep paradox in presenting the life of Schoenberg, the archetypal high-modernist, through the conventions of an avowedly populist medium like film. Yet in his view, the gesture is of a piece with a central tension that animated Schoenberg’s own life and work: how to retain the purity of one’s own artistic ideas while at the same time communicating them to a wider public. According to the opera’s creators, “Schoenberg in Hollywood” aspires to do both. And that will also apply to the staging’s visual language. 

“The opera goes back and forth,” explained Karole Armitage, the veteran choreographer who stepped up to direct “Schoenberg in Hollywood” after Murray, its original director, passed away suddenly in July. “There’s this internal world, looking back at a life — almost like Noh theater, when you come back as a ghost and are remembering your history — and then there’s a side that’s just full of the energy, excitement, and dynamism of American popular culture. It’s this mixture of meditation and street energy coming together.” 

For Machover, the score also represents a delicate balancing act, a search for “a musical language that could be poised on the razor’s edge between accessibility and complexity.” The composer wanted to avoid what he called “pastiche,” but he has drawn deeply from Schoenberg’s own music for a culminating sequence. It occurs after the opera’s madcap dash through various film styles seems to sputter out in exhaustion. None of these genre conventions, the libretto suggests, can ultimately contain the once-in-a-century uniqueness of Schoenberg’s art. A final scene, entitled “Schoenberg’s Vision,” tries to summon its dimensions and convey them to an audience that will surely have entered the theater with varying degrees of familiarity with Schoenberg’s work. 

“I hope,” said Machover, “that audiences are tantalized, challenged, and delighted by this music, and go away with some tunes to hum — maybe even 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 — the public still does not realize the breadth of his achievement or the richness of his legacy.”

Schoenberg in Hollywood

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Paramount Center, Nov. 14-18. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org