Arts opera review

Arnold Schoenberg brings his music to Hollywood

Schoenberg explores his Jewish identity, his artistic vision, and music in a blend of film and opera

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As Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) looks on during a music lesson, his music students (Sarah Womble and Jesse Darden) break into a fanciful dance in 'Schoenberg in Hollywood.'
Courtesy of Lisa Voll Photography

Schoenberg in Hollywood
Composed by Tod Machover
Libretto by Simon Robson
Emerson Paramount Center
Nov. 14–18

Machover operas tend to be experimental, technology-infused explorations of self; it’s no surprise that his dream project of over 20 years, Schoenberg in Hollywood, graces the stage with musical pomp, humor, and a stylized interpretation of composer Arnold Schoenberg’s (Omar Ebrahim) life. After escaping the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe where his music was denounced as degenerate, the Jewish composer makes his way to the most glamorous part of America: Hollywood. The opera is bookended by his first and last meetings (of which he only had two) with Hollywood director, Irving Thalberg (Jesse Darden), who asks Schoenberg to compose for his new film. Schoenberg, the stubborn, proud artist, demands to have control of all forms of sound — music, dialogue, sound effects — and while Thalberg is reluctant, Schoenberg ends up with some leverage.

In this opera, Arnold Schoenberg is the writer, composer, and the protagonist of his own story — he writes the music for Schoenberg in Hollywood in lieu of writing music for Thalberg. Acting as a director of sorts, Schoenberg asks his students to act out his life. The opera’s small but versatile cast of three people brings the story to a surreal experience; the Boy (Jesse Darden) and the Girl (Sara Womble) are Schoenberg’s students who play the role of all the different people in Schoenberg’s life. Darden and Womble do a commendable job of differentiating their numerous roles, which is not a small feat considering how many aspects of Schoenberg’s life we go through.

As these two students play the roles of the different people, the opera cycles through film archetypes and genres like noir detectives, Western cowboys, romantic dramas, and superhero films. Sometimes, the projected films in the back look hokey (Schoenberg pulling his shirt apart to reveal the Superman logo comes to mind) but other times, it is a bizarre yet fascinating experience that opera-lovers, film-lovers, and theater-lovers likely don’t expect with this combination of mediums. We have simultaneous acting on stage with pre-recorded short “films” of Schoenberg’s life projected at the back of the stage, coupled with us watching Schoenberg watching himself played by his students watching the film projected in the back.

Naturally, the acting, the film, and the singing are coupled with orchestral music. Tod Machover, an MIT Professor from the Media Lab, throws in snippets of Schoenberg’s compositions into the music, but the opera’s composer takes care to avoid riffing off too much; the music is avant-garde and takes on an assortment of moods to suit each film. We have the amusing scene of Schoenberg singing about the various critics who dislike his music, but there are also the heartbreaking: the romance between Schoenberg and his first wife Mathilde as she lives and dies. Schoenberg begs her to “not leave him with Arnold Schoenberg,” because leaving him to live with himself, his mind whirling through too many thoughts and fears, is something he hasn’t learned to cope with yet. She does die in the end, and Schoenberg moves on until his second wife, Gertrud.

But we also realize the obvious: Thalberg doesn’t want to lose control of his film, so for Schoenberg, it’s his art and his memories that Schoenberg has most control of.  Librettist Simon Robson takes on Schoenberg’s biography with a bit of artistic liberty, pulling the emotional turmoil of identity to the forefront. Schoenberg became Lutheran before returning to his Jewish roots later in his life, but it’s no surprise that when his music is denounced — Schoenberg’s music was atonal and unusual during a time when harmonies are preferred — it’s difficult to accept himself, especially when the criticism is tied directly to his identity. In a grotesque scene, Schoenberg encounters anti-Semitism in a beach scene that ends with the Nazi flag being unfurled on the sand and Schoenberg leaving.

The staging of this opera is limited by the Paramount Center’s design, as the orchestra usually performs in the pit in front of the stage. The orchestra here performs in the back of the stage, hidden behind a moveable wall, and a sound system designed by grad student Ben Bloomberg is used to project music to the entire audience. In one dramatic moment, the back wall lifts to reveal the musicians visible through the cracks of a “wall” built from rotating triangular pieces. The brilliance of warm lights and the literal breaking of the fourth wall drives home the thin boundary between audience and actor, singer and composer, music and film. Why not have an opera that draws boundaries together?

Here we have an opera that plays with its limitations. “Play” is a curious word: we play as children, we play with words, we play around, we play as actors of other people, and naturally, we play music. This is an opera about how humans manipulate sound. Omar Ebrahim plays an intense Schoenberg who switches his accent to suit the projected film at the time. Schoenberg’s compositions use 12-tones and tend to steer clear of something so vanilla as pleasant harmonies. This opera’s Schoenberg is a creative player, but also a fighter; he cycles around and around before accepting Judaism, he hurtles forward into the future with his musical sensibilities, he falls in love and loses people and runs, but he eventually finds a home in himself. Remember the composer of “degenerate music” Schoenberg who tells us, “I am only Schoenberg,” and asks, “Am I only Schoenberg?” before declaring, triumphant, “Only I am Schoenberg.”