Thoughts on Resurrection

Tod Machover
February 1999

My music has always been about human possibility and transformation, and I have tried to explore a realistic, optimistic path to individual growth and betterment without ignoring the inevitable pain and struggles of such a journey. With these personal and artistic interests, it is not surprising that I was drawn early - in my late teens and early twenties - to Russian literature, with Tolstoy always striking me as the most inspiring, most complex, and most truthful of all novelists.

When David Gockley first expressed interest, over ten years ago, in having me compose an opera, I immediately decided that I wanted this not only to be a piece about an individual's personal and spiritual journey, but about how one's own personal growth could have - must have - a powerfully positive effect on other people and on the whole world. I thought of various scenarios, most of which were rooted in contemporary American society, before my eyes fell on an old copy of Tolstoy's "Resurrection" in my library and I realized that this was the story I had been looking for. The depth of the questions posed; the riveting, intimate, unusual love story of Prince Nekhlyudov and the serving girl/prostitute Maslova; the indelibly horrifying descriptions of cruelty and stupidity providing the backdrop for an unbelievable flowering of human vitality, warmth, and love; the piercing analysis of both Moscow society and the wild natural forces of Siberia; and the incredible, courageous risks taken by so many of the book's characters, and by Tolstoy himself in this, his last novel, and in his own final chapter of life - all of these characteristics convinced me that I had "come home" to the right story. And like so many of Tolstoy's late writings, "Resurrection" has a timeless quality and an indelible call to conscience and to action that cuts across centuries and cultures, at least as relevant today as when it was published exactly one hundred years ago.

With librettist Laura Harrington and director/dramaturge Braham Murray (as well as the incredibly helpful collaboration of David Gockley), we shaped a two-act structure from the novel's original three parts. However, these three parts are still reflected in the opera's dramatic structure and in the music - the awakening of both Maslova and Nekhlyudov to the horrible emptiness of their lives (Act I), the descent into hell (Siberia, actually) that both must make, together and apart (Act II, Scene 1), and both of their resurrections (Act II, Scene 2) back to life and love, leading each to a different conclusion and a different future. The subtly powerful transformation of their relationship holds the opera together, while the external world - of family, courtroom, salon, prison camp, and nature itself - forces the two to action, and in turn will be changed by them for the better.

The music of the opera attempts to convey the large steps on these paths to resurrection, while also illuminating the delicate and subtle changes in each character, often revealed through intimate conversations. To this end, certain musical characteristics evolve gradually (such as the general brightening and increasing consonance of the harmonies and an increasing rhythmic and melodic freedom), while being clarified through carefully defined and differentiated scenes and "numbers." The music itself is fairly consistently tonal, although harmonic relationships are often surprising and refreshing. My primary musical instinct (perhaps since I'm a cellist) has always been melodic, and I have tried to fill the opera with a lyricism that is memorable without being derivative. The rhythmic palette is quite varied, shifting and unpredictable in much of Act I, pulsating ominously in Siberia (Act II, Scene 1), and spinning fast, delicate, almost weightless as love and dignity are reborn (Act II, Scene 2).

When I had the opportunity to compose my opera VALIS (1987/8) for Paris' Pompidou Center, I took it as an invitation to rethink the content and context of opera, since the Pompidou had neither an opera house nor an opera orchestra. This led to my choice of the science fiction subject, the use of virtual scenography, and the invention of Hypersinstruments, which allowed two musicians to perform and shape the dense and intricate musical score. With Resurrection, my idea has been different. I always imagined this as a work which would sit comfortably in a traditional opera house, which would use the opera's resources in a fresh but idiomatic way, and which would speak directly and immediately to opera lovers, while not being "conventional" in the negative sense. The work does indeed use a traditional opera orchestra and will feature the unamplified voices of the cast. There will also be some electronic enhancement of the orchestration, performed by three keyboard players (using some special sound-shaping devices built by my team for this project). This extra sonic layer is designed to blend into the overall texture, sometimes providing clarity and punch to the bass line, sometimes shadowing a melody, oftentimes providing extra dimension and texture in the larger ensemble scenes, and always emphasizing the dramatic evolution of the story and characters. Resurrection represents an attempt to create electronics that are subtle and sophisticated enough to blend almost imperceptibly with the physical, acoustic presence of instruments and voices.

As to the "feel" of Resurrection, I usually find it hard to objectively describe a new piece before having had a chance to listen to it and live with it for a while. I do know that I immersed myself in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Russian music when starting the project, and listened to a lot of Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, early Stravinsky, and early Shostakovich (among others). While fairly certain that none of this ended up explicitly in my score, I do believe that there is a directness, melodiousness, harmonic adventurousness, bass-centeredness, and rhythmic energy that may have been partially inspired by this repertoire. I do think that there is a certain "Russian" quality in much of the score, although it is difficult to say exactly why. Since most of my family came from Russia - all four grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the ten years after "Resurrection" was published - the "feel" of the score may simply be a return to roots and deep interests, as was my chance rediscovery of Tolstoy's novel.

Working on this opera, and coming to grips with Tolstoy's towering and demanding novel, has been a transformative experience for me as an artist and as a person. I hope that Resurrection will touch people by the quality, variety and beauty of its music, and by the struggles and triumphs of its characters. I further hope it draws people to consider the higher goals and simple truths that Tolstoy reminds us of so powerfully (and that are so often buried or forgotten in our hectic, complicated lives). The opera is meant above all as a call to action, to make the world a better place.

And if we can't change everything at once, we can at least - as Nekhlyudov does at the end of Resurrection - "take the first step.... wherever it leads."