Schoenberg in Hollywood: A new opera by Tod Machover


Peter Torpey

Peter Torpey

“Can a man know the truth and tell it to the greatest number and still be misunderstood? Can one man be of the many and still be known?”

Schoenberg in Hollywood is the most recent opera by composer-inventor-professor Tod Machover that explores the complex relationship between uncompromising art and mass appeal, and of whether—and how—art can change the world. Arnold Schoenberg was a man of extraordinary contradictions: now considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers, during much of his lifetime Schoenberg was known for—and excelled at—composing music hated by the public and critics; a man whose only compass was his pursuit of pure ideas, Schoenberg also yearned for popularity; Schoenberg’s music absorbs tradition, but it is not hampered by it and always points forward. What happened—and might have happened—when such an uncompromising spirit settled in Hollywood, the epicenter of American popular culture, after he fled Hitler's Europe in 1935?

Schoenberg in Hollywood begins with a meeting (one that did occur in history) between the legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg of Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Arnold Schoenberg. Thalberg asks Schoenberg to compose music for a film based on Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a best-seller about the life of peasants in a Chinese village. Although Schoenberg disdained the idea of composing music to please the public, the prospect of writing a Hollywood film score that would reach millions appealed to him greatly. In reality, Schoenberg was not offered the job when he demanded a $50,000 fee—an astronomical sum at the time—from Thalberg. However, Schoenberg in Hollywood exploits—and explores—the hypothetical scenario of what would have happened if Schoenberg had indeed composed for Hollywood. In the opera, Schoenberg imagines the events of his life through the lens of different film genres: silents, noir mysteries, Disney cartoons, musicals, and Westerns, making the movie—and projecting his vision well into the future—that Hollywood never allowed him to do.

Commissioned and presented by Boston Lyric Opera, with much visionary technology for sound, image, and staging created at the MIT Media Lab, Schoenberg in Hollywood is based on a scenario by the late Braham Murray, with a libretto by Simon Robson and directed by Karole Armitage. Schoenberg in Hollywood premiered at the Boston Lyric Opera in November 2018 and travels to the Vienna Volksoper in the 2019/2020 season.

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