Translating the Music of Trees Into the Sounds of Opera


Alex Hodor-Lee for The New York Times

Alex Hodor-Lee for The New York Times

By Thomas May

Musical themes abound in the work of the novelist Richard Powers, often intertwined with science and social issues. The parallel decoding of Bach and DNA (“The Gold Bug Variations”), the saga of an interracial family of classical performers unfolding against the events of the Civil Rights era (“The Time of Our Singing”): A signature of Powers’s novels is the virtuosity with which he weaves these strands into narratives that seem both surprising and inevitable.

With his 12th novel, “The Overstory,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019, Powers draws on the findings of dendrology (the study of trees) and contemporary environmental anxieties to hint at a music that is always present but largely unrecognized — that of nature itself, as represented by the lives of trees.

Powers said in an interview that his “preoccupation with the more-than-human world, the living world beyond the human” had pushed his work in a new direction for “The Overstory,” which he called “the most operatic of my novels.” It is told on a large scale, with an extended cast of characters, wide geographical scope and a long time frame.

The composer Tod Machover sensed this operatic potential as soon as he read it and was especially drawn to its relevance. “The subjects Powers brings together here are so important,” Machover said in a phone interview from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, where he directs the Opera of the Future group. “I’ve always wanted to write a theatrical work with many strands that come together in an unusual way.”

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