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Artfully curated by Culturadar

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January 4, 2017

Missy Mazzoli’s Opera BREAKING THE WAVES

With the first new opera by a woman in over a 100 years on the Metropolitan Opera stage, our culture is finally noticing that women write opera. This weekend, composer Missy Mazzoli’s opera Breaking the Waves, with librettist Royce Vavrek, will have its New York City premiere at the Prototype Festival, a festival focusing on new opera. Breaking the Waves is based on the 1996 Lars von Trier film, which is set in a deeply religious community in Scotland. The film has been accused of having a misogynistic narrative: when Jan is paralyzed in an accident, he urges his wife, Bess, to have sex with other men. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke with Mazzoli about tackling this story as a feminist, women composers, and what it means when female characters die in opera.

Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

Culturadar: How did an opera of Breaking the Waves come about?

Missy Mazzoli: My librettist Royce Vavrek suggested we adapt it into the opera. At first I was resistant because it’s such an amazing film, and I didn’t think we could improve upon it, but the more I thought about it the more I could hear music in it. And I’m always saying that opera is a place for big ideas. Finally I said, let’s do it.


CR: How do you approach adapting source material that you love and that you think already works?

MM: The genre of opera is so inherently different from film. This film was shot with handheld cameras, and there’s no composed score. There isn’t music telling you how to feel except some 70s rock tunes. There’s a lot of space to imagine another psychological layer, and opera is positioned to illuminate that.

Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

CR: What do you think you bring to a story told by a male that is accused of being misogynistic?

MM: There’s so much ambiguity in the storyline. What, particularly, is Jan’s motivation? It’s never made clear in the film why he’s asking her to take other lovers. You can look at it as a selfish motive, but my interpretation is it’s a selfless act. He’s trying to set her free because he’s paralyzed. Ultimately, I think this is a story about a woman in an impossible situation. Bess has no power as a woman living in the Scottish highlands in the 1970s and, like many women, she’s caught in a situation in which everyone around her is telling her what to do—the church, her mother, her sister. We staged the opera that way—that everyone on stage directs their voices at Bess. Bess finds her own power. She has this controversial idea of what it means to be a good person and she’s the only character that sticks with that to the very end. While this is not a feminist story–that’s not its preoccupation–I do think von Trier brings to light this experience that is common with women; they are often surrounded by people who try to control their behaviors and their bodies, but because they are women they have very limited power in these situations.

Photo by Nicholas Korkos

CR: How do you view female characters in opera in general? What are your favorites?

MM: For hundreds of years, most operas were written by men but featured female heroines in extreme situations. My goal in opera and in all of my work is to create interesting, complicated, multi-faceted female characters, and Bess falls into that. A lot is made of the fact that women often die in opera, and opera is sometimes called a misogynist art because of that, but that’s an oversimplification. Opera is an extreme art form and dramatization of our everyday life. A woman’s death in opera can mean transcendence or the ultimate fulfillment of a goal, and in Bess’s case, it can be symbolic. I love the sort of bad girls in opera. I love Lulu in Berg’s Lulu. She’s a complicated character. I love Agnes in Written on Skin. All these women cover a lot of emotional ground in their operas even if they are living in a society in which they don’t have as much actual power.


CR: You were recently in a New York Times article about woman composing opera. What has been your experience with this piece?

MM: I’ve been a composer for 20 years and I’m entering the middle of my career. It’s interesting to see certain patterns, looking at women who start out wanting to be composers in their early teens and are then discouraged from it. I saw these patterns in my own life. If you can get through undergraduate and graduate school, then you’re sort of an anomaly and you’re sort of on the path to making it, but a lot of women don’t feel respected or seen early in life so they don’t pursue composition as a career. I see glass ceilings in certain areas of the field, and opera is definitely one of them. I was lucky to hook up with Beth Morrison and Opera Philadelphia, and they really took a chance on me early in my career, but that’s not the norm. I was really ready for a lot of pushback with this piece, since audiences sometimes react negatively to works by women that are overtly sexual or violent, but didn’t receive that. People really understood what we were going for and embraced the work in its entirety.

Photo by Nicholas Korkos

CR: How did your musical ideas change with the trip to Scotland?

MM: The trip to Scotland was surprisingly inspiring. I’m not usually inspired directly by nature, I’m inspired more by human drama, but I was struck by the violent contrast in the landscape. There will be these lush rolling hills and then this rock formation coming out of nowhere—this landscape of extremes. So in the music you’ll have these placid moments and textures and then this loud chord out of nowhere. That’s not usually the way that I work, but I could just hear this landscape. My ideas also evolved when we brought on our director, James Darrah, who has a brilliant dramatic mind and who had this idea that as the opera goes on we move from the external to the internal world of Bess’s mind. That opened up my musical ideas in an interesting way.


CR: What does the singer Kiera Duffy bring to the piece?

MM: She is one of the most amazing singers I have worked with. One of the reasons we chose her was I saw in her performances this brilliance that extended beyond musical brilliance. She understood the composer’s intention in a way that I’d never really seen before. I knew she would get inside the character. The role is brutal. She’s onstage for nearly two hours with very few breaks, and there’s a lot of sex and violence, which is hard to do when you’re trying to sing a perfect high A. I call her my muse because just knowing she’s around and can do this is such an inspiring thing for a composer.

Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

CR: What is your collaboration with Royce Vavrek like?

MM: We have a really close relationship, which is such a gift. We talk almost every day. I think that was a really important part of creating the piece. We’d be out having a drink, and one of us would have an idea about the piece that kind of came out of nowhere. When you’re around someone that much, the piece evolves in a particular way. He has a brilliant understanding of form and drama and trajectory that works well for opera.


CR: What does it mean for this piece to come to the Prototype Festival?

MM: Beth Morrison gave us our first big break in New York in 2012 with Song from the Uproar at The Kitchen. I haven’t had a piece in Prototype yet, so this feels like an amazing evolution in my relationship with her. It’s a fantastic festival that is filling a void with its focus on new opera and avant-garde theatrical works.

BREAKING THE WAVES is performed on Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights (January 6-9) at 7:30 pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.

Posted at 8:39 PM

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