April 18, 1999
'Resurrection': An Opera Lures a Futurist Back to the Present
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By KYLE GANN
ESURRECTION," the new work being given
its premiere on Friday by the Houston Grand Opera, centers on
a 19th-century Russian nobleman and the peasant girl he seduced
and abandoned. The Prince is a baritone, the peasant girl a mezzo-soprano.
The staging includes a courtroom scene, a party in a magnificent
Moscow palace, a death march in plodding C minor in a desolate
Siberian prison camp. The libretto is woven from Tolstoy's final
novel, a story echoing the classic Wagnerian theme of redemption
through love, culminating in a stirring prison-scene climax.
There is nothing odd about any of this. And that is precisely
what is so odd about it.
George Hixson/Houston Grand Opera
|Joyce DiDonato and Scott Hendricks rehearse
Tod Machover's "Resurrection."
Because the composer is Tod Machover, who, perhaps more than
anyone else, is identified with new computer-music possibilities,
science-fiction opera, artificial intelligence manifested in
sound. He is known for his 1988 opera, "Valis," arguably
the most famous achievement in operatic science fiction, which
traces the story of a Philip K. Dick novel with rock beats and
hallucinogenic synthesizer riffs. He is known for his "hyperinstruments,"
like the computerized cello on which Yo-Yo Ma performed, each
movement of his arm triggering great washes of sound rising through
stacks of loudspeakers.
Mr. Machover is also known for his interactive "Brain
Opera," which drew thousands of audience members to Lincoln
Center in 1996 to speak into microphones, push pedals and buttons,
and listen through headphones to a complex artificial-intelligence
music system patterned after the work of the computer maven Marvin
Minsky. In the end, the venture was widely perceived as a failure.
And now, at 45, Mr. Machover is returning to his Russian-immigrant
roots to write a 19th-century operatic love story with a bad-guy
baritone and a good-guy tenor. What gives? Is the "Resurrection"
he is looking for his own?
Not to hear him tell it. Like many artists, he sees
the unity underlying an output that seems crazily diverse from
the outside. Sitting recently in his lovely home in Belmont,
Mass., which was built and decorated mostly in wood by an M.I.T.
professor who predated Mr. Machover's current tenure there, he
explained "Valis" as a seminal work that branched off
in two directions, one toward "Brain Opera," the other
toward "Resurrection." "Valis" was an extraterrestrial
acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligent System, and the intelligent-machine
aspects of the work continued in "Brain Opera." For
Mr. Machover, "Resurrection" picks up the personal-development
thread of "Valis."
" 'Valis,' was about certain individuals' spiritual or
personal journeys, their psychological development," Mr.
Machover mused. " 'Valis' always stayed inside its main
character's head. After that, I wanted to write something about
how you decide what your relationship is to the outside world.
You can't wait until some hypothetical point when you're ready
to start making a difference to other people. What can you actually
do? At what level do you help other people or society as a whole?"
So Mr. Machover spent his post-"Valis" decade searching
for a libretto to explore that theme, rejecting several nascent
projects. One idea that sounds particularly intriguing was a
work (with Peter Sellars as collaborator) about a family present
at and later obsessed with the assassination of President Kennedy.
Instead, Mr. Machover returned to a book he had long loved,
Tolstoy's "Resurrection." It tells the story of Prince
Dmitry Nekhlyudov, who sits in a trial jury and recognizes the
accused, the prostitute Katerina Maslova, as a young woman he
seduced, impregnated and abandoned 10 years before, now mired
in a sordid life. Unjustly sentenced to hard labor, Katerina
is sent to prison. Nekhlyudov, racked with guilt, can no longer
continue his carefree high-society life but must seek out Katerina
and rescue her. At first she clings to her degraded state and
repulses him, but Nekhlyudov obtains a pardon for her, and they
are both resurrected in spirit. She agrees to marry not the Prince
but a noble fellow prisoner named Simonson, and sends Nekhlyudov
off to help transform the unjust world he now sees clearly.
"I've always been thirsty for knowledge, and at the same
time interested in the question of when you have enough knowledge
and should act on it," Mr. Machover said. "With this
whole opera project I've been trying to move from self-reflection
to not only action but something that would benefit the world.
I've always been looking for a story that would be motivational.
That's a dreadful word. But something that would make the point
that it is possible to do something, even though it may not be
that big and you can't change everything at once. The opera ends
with Nekhlyudov singing, 'I will take the first step.' He just
gets to the point of realizing that he can do something and is
ready to start."
Aside from this far from obvious thematic link between Philip
K. Dick and Tolstoy, Mr. Machover points out that "Resurrection"
also uses electronics. The work is billed as being scored for
"electronically enhanced orchestra," though neither
the director, Braham Murray, nor the conductor, Patrick Summers,
seemed, before electronic rehearsals began, to know what that
The idea came from David Gockley, the general director of
the Houston Grand Opera. When Mr. Machover made a synthesized
cassette of the work, it included "some wonderful electronic
sounds that could never be reproduced by traditional orchestra,"
Mr. Gockley said. "I found them so effective that I encouraged
him to include them in the final orchestration."
In the score, which is nearly four inches thick in small print
(although the opera runs a relatively modest two and a half hours),
it is clear that there are three electronic keyboards in the
orchestra. Two of them spend Act I mostly doubling various orchestral
lines. But in Act II, where the scene changes from Moscow to
the bleak vastness of Siberia, the entire sound world is transformed,
and the two synthesizers become more independent. The third keyboard,
meanwhile, sends digital information to the other two, changing
their timbres, sometimes rapidly, and somehow interacting with
a computer as the story progresses.
It is unclear how prominent the electronics will be in the
overall sound, but Mr. Machover, who trained in Paris at Ircam,
Pierre Boulez's mecca of high technology, and who teaches in
the electronic studio at M.I.T., has a long history of blending
electronic tones and live acoustic instruments in a smooth fusion,
going back to his "Spectres Parisiens" of 1984.
Mr. Machover seems to regret slightly that his reputation
has been so swamped by the image of a wildly futuristic electronic
"The common goal of most of my music is a musical goal
or expressive goal," he said. "The means I choose usually
seem like just the right ones for the project. I love large instrumental
forces. I love real voices. After 'Valis,' I wanted to find something
that wasn't just an electric sound. There are wonderful things
about electric sound, and there are a lot of things about electric
sound that I'm dissatisfied with. The flatness of it. I don't
like the fact that electric sounds have to get very loud to hit
you in the gut. Acoustic sound, if you do it right, or blend
it the right way with electronics, is much more three-dimensional,
and there's more dynamic range."
The fact that Mr. Gockley first approached him about writing
a conventional orchestral opera 10 years ago defuses speculation
that Mr. Machover returned to the orchestra in retreat from the
partial failure of "Brain Opera," which received enviable
millions in corporate sponsorship without stirring much critical
praise. He admits that "Brain Opera" was "more
ambitious than what we had the means to do at the time,"
but claims that it improved as it toured Europe, Brazil and Japan.
"It certainly wasn't perfectly realized at Lincoln Center,"
he said. "The main thing I wasn't satisfied with was the
extent to which we could meaningfully integrate audience input
into the finished piece. We got better at that over a couple
of years." Still, the work will soon find a final destination
as a permanent installation in Vienna.
Mr. Machover studied with two of the most famous icons of
intellectual complexity in American music, Roger Sessions and
Elliott Carter, and the complexity of the "Resurrection"
score has received much comment. Yet the music is mostly tonal,
often in fairly static F major or C minor for long stretches.
The more complex aspect is the extremely fluid rhythm, for the
meters change almost constantly, and quintuplets are found among
already mind-bendingly difficult meters like 11/16 and 13/16.
Whether or not the score represents a peculiarly Machoverian
sound world, the combination of tonal harmony and mercurial rhythm
has been a Machover trademark ever since his 1984 ensemble piece
"People have asked me, 'Is this a dissonant score?' "
said Mr. Summers, who will conduct the Houston performances.
"It's actually more complicated than that. It is often dissonant
and as often quite wonderfully consonant, covering a wide range
of emotions very graphically. I would call the score Straussian,
in an emotional sense. In an orchestrational sense, it puts one
in mind of Janacek, yet there are lyrical passages that remind
one of Mozart. It is polyrhythmic, polytonal, polytimbred, if
that's a word."
Is it a difficult work for the singers? "Yeah,"
Mr. Summers said with a sigh. "Singers don't often deal
with such complex rhythms. Such immense panic set in when we
started. But there's no difficulty for them now, and the next
modern score they tackle won't seem difficult."
Mr. Gockley, who is responsible for the two dozen premieres
the fertile Houston Grand Opera has produced in the last quarter-century,
including Meredith Monk's "Atlas" and John Adams's
"Nixon in China," was attracted to Mr. Machover by
his grateful use of the voice in "Valis." Yet after
the psychedelic "Valis" and the aborted J.F.K. opera,
the 19th-century story of "Resurrection" struck Mr.
Gockley as a complete surprise.
"If anyone had told me two years ago that we would soon
do an opera based on Tolstoy, I would probably have just giggled,"
he said. "We are infamous for having created the 'docu-opera'
movement," he added, citing "Nixon in China,"
Michael Daugherty's "Jackie O," and Stewart Wallace's
"Harvey Milk." "We were heading that way with
Tod until he latched onto Mr. Tolstoy. For many people that genre
has run its course, and the way now is to look at metaphorical
subjects from other periods and not try to be so hip." R
EGARDLESS of whether "Resurrection" indeed becomes
the first work in a major new trend, the Russian subject matter
had a strong ancestral resonance for Mr. Machover, the grandson
of four Russian Jewish immigrants who all came to the United
States within a few years after Tolstoy wrote "Resurrection"
in 1899. Thus the paradox of this futuristic musical thinker's
being drawn back to an Old World subject so relevant to the past
his family left behind.
Is there an analogy between Prince Nekhlyudov's leaving his
society life to reform the world and Mr. Machover's breaking
away from the hermetic world of contemporary music to try to
reach a broader public? Mr. Machover pointedly avoids any such
"First of all, I think of that as something you think
about when you're a young composer and trying to find your voice,"
he said. "At this point, I feel like I've written pieces
that I thought were reaching out and nobody understood. I find
it hard to predict. I think this piece is one that people should
like and respond to, but who the hell knows?"
The next theater work he has planned will tackle the conflict
between communicative compromise and artistic integrity directly:
it is an opera about the years Arnold Schoenberg spent in Los
Angeles, and includes George Gershwin and the Marx Brothers (with
whom Schoenberg played tennis) as characters.
Is this yet another stretch into new territory? "One
answer is, my musical interests and my imagination go in a bunch
of different directions," Mr. Machover said. "I always
dreamed of a musical language in which all of the strands I'm
interested in would come together. I am attracted to projects
that bring more of what I love into this synthesis, into this
mix. You don't pick the way your life or your creative work is
going to go."