BWW Preview: Mazzoli-Vavrek WAVES Gets Second Break, at New York's Prototype Festival in January

BWW Preview: Mazzoli-Vavrek WAVES Gets Second Break, at New York's Prototype Festival in January

BWW Preview: Mazzoli-Vavrek WAVES Gets Second Break, at New York's Prototype Festival in January
Center: Kiera Duffy as Bess. Photo: Dominic
M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

For a new opera to have its second major showing less than four months after its premiere is unheard of--but then BREAKING THE WAVES, based on the Lars Von Trier film of the same name, isn't just any opera. This triumph by composer Missy Mazzoli, librettist Royce Vavrek, and direction by James Darrah--with a star-making turn by soprano Kiera Duffy in the central role of Bess--debuted at Opera Philadelphia on September 22, 2016. It is having its New York premiere on January 6-9, 2017, over the first weekend of the Prototype Festival at NYU's Skirball Center. (The Festival runs from January 5-15, 2017, starting with the World Premiere of MATA HARI by composer Matt Marks and librettist/director Paul Peers on the 5th, at HERE's Mainstage, 145 6th Ave, New York, NY.)

BREAKING THE WAVES was co-commissioned by Beth Morrisson Projects, which also happens to be one of the producers of Prototype (full name: Prototype: Opera/Theatre/Now) with HERE. The third presenter in New York is Trinity Church Wall Street, whose music director, Julian Wachner, is conducting the performances, with the church's choir along with NOVUS NY. (As composer and conductor, Wachner also has his own piece on the Prototype schedule, REV. 23, a work in progress billed as "the hitherto unpublished last chapter of the Book of Revelation as dictated by St. John the Divine and transcribed by Cerise Lim Jacobs," at National Sawdust on January 14.)

Of the other major characters in the Philadelphia production, baritone John Moore is back in the crucial role of Jan, Bess' husband, whose accident sets the drama in motion, and mezzo Eve Gigliotti returns as Bess' sister-in-law, Dodo McNeill.

The opera's creative team, including the composer, librettist, director, some of the singers and the original conductor, Steven Osgood, gathered together back in September at the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series to talk about the development of the work. Here are some excerpts from the piece I wrote then.

Quick: What film won the Golden Globe for Best Movie in 1997? It was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. But more important for composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, the question is "What film didn'twin the Golden Globe in 1997?" The answer (for them, at least) is Lars von Trier's BREAKING THE WAVES, which they've transformed into an opera of the same name, co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects.

It's the story of Bess, living on the Isle of Skye (off Scotland's west coast) in the '70s, who meets Jan, a Norwegian oil rigger working nearby and marries him. Much of the opera takes place in the aftermath of an accident on the rig that renders him paralyzed, after he suggests she satisfy her sexual needs with other men. (Needless to say, there's a caveat that "the production includes nudity, sexual content, and explicit language.")

I promise not to give away any major secrets--though if you saw the von Trier film, you know it doesn't end happily for the heroine--except that the opera should foster much wider appreciation for the music of Mazzoli and help people "discover" Kiera Duffy's soaring soprano. It's a dark film--and the perfect source for an opera, says the composer. "Each of the characters is infinitely deep and incredibly complicated and I feel that opera's superpower is creating a subtext and saying two things at once."

Here are a few things you should know about this new, unconventional--and exciting--opera, taken from the "Works and Process" discussion.

This was not Mazzoli and Vavrek's first time working together. It is a follow-up to SONGS FROM THE UPROAR, a 75-minute chamber opera based on the life of Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, which premiered in 2012 at The Kitchen in New York City.

Librettist Vavrek became obsessed with the film version as a teenager. Vavrek is the "poster boy" for contemporary opera librettos--he has already had a major success this year with JFK, which premiered in Dallas, with a score by David T. Little (also his composer on the acclaimed DOG DAYS). He had the task of paring down a two-hour movie to give the opera the bones on which the music would have room to get into the heads of the characters. "This is my favorite film of all time. I found it--or it found me--when I was 14 years old," says Vavrek. Growing up on a farm in northern Alberta, Canada, he first became aware of it watching a film clip at the Golden Globe Awards on television and, he says, "It changed my life." It was his idea to turn it into an opera, as a follow-up to his work with Mazzoli on UPROAR.

Composer Mazzoli didn't think it was a good idea--at first. Mazzoli loved the film so much that she thought it was a terrible idea to make it into an opera. "The idea blew my mind," she says. "Why adapt something that was already amazing?" But she couldn't get the idea out of her head: "It resonated with me and I could hear the music from the characters."

She worked two Scottish musical traditions into the piece: First, traditional Gaelic songs of the Highlands, "the way that members of a church sing a melody that they all know but don't line up together, and you get this wash of sound." Second, the sound of bagpipes. "In researching this project I found that I love bagpipes, which worked itself into the piece but not in an overt way; there are no bagpipes in it, but there's this dense harmonic language that comes out of listening to them."

Director James Darrah also didn't buy the source material as an opera--at first. Darrah, the third of the opera's creators, first heard Mazzoli's music ["Symphonia for Orbital Spheres"] at an LA Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles and knew he wanted to work with her--but when he heard she was working on an opera of BREAKING THE WAVES (BTW), he didn't buy it instantly.

"It was in many ways a perfect film," says the director, but while he thought of it as "intimate, quiet," he found that Mazzoli's take used it as a jumping off point to tell the same story in an almost totally different direction. He calls it a "fever dream of an opera" that takes the story and goes in a way that is "visceral and evocative and full of real human beings, beauty and sexuality."

The opera was developed through Opera Philadelphia's Composer-in-Residence program. This included a workshop in January of this year, where all the principles, cast and orchestra were assembled under one roof for the first time. Musical director Osgood recalls, "In the course of those five days, we had several goals, the first being to get a sense of the full piece.... But it was also our chance to discover the language of the opera. Missy, Royce and James had worked together and had a language that they shared, but the rest of us, the musicians and cast, had just received the score a few weeks before the workshop.

"It was a room where everyone entered extremely nervous.... It's complex music. And, yes, we wanted to get it right, but ... it was more important to be as curious as possible, as patient as possible.... Along the way, instead of asking 'what is it supposed to be?', it became 'why is it supposed to be that way?', 'why is she saying it to him?' and 'why is that pause there?'"

The Scottish landscape was inspiring to the creators. The OP Composer-in-Residence program allowed Mazzoli, Vavrek and Darrah to go off to Scotland, to the Isle of Skye, where the opera--and film--takes place, going to the sites where von Trier chose to film. They were inspired by the physical landscape and the violence of nature there. Vavrek took along some of his libretto and had the landlady at the bed-and-breakfast where they stayed read it to hear it with the local pronunciation, for a sense of place. (Later, they would have a coach specializing in this accent--different from Scottish--to act as the "dialect police.")

Mazzoli says they didn't know what to expect. She recalls, "We had an outline of where we wanted to go--all the places where the film was shot, but what ended up being inspiring... were the contrasts, the violence of the landscape. It is a very loud landscape--even though it is a quiet place, it seemed to be screaming at me--and... on one of our walks, I knew the opera was going to begin with this massive chord at the start of [the aria], 'His Name is Jan.'"

Evoking the Isle of Skye, but not literally. According to Darrah, von Trier evokes a gut response when you watch the film, while the opera needed to have designers who help the piece make sense on stage. This meant scenery--here, a unit set by Adam Rigg with projections by Adam Larsen and lighting by Pablo Santiago--that would evoke the Isle of Skye without being too literal, because otherwise "it would feel like a Disneyland ride." With all its surfaces taking projections, the set portrays an ever-shifting landscape that conjures up the places and the sense of place of the island, but also creates "an abstracted environment that doesn't compromise character." The costumes by Chrisi Karvonides also help create an atmosphere rooted in time and place, the early 70s.

"Missy writes musically what I equate to a dream state: The sense of time and space is surreal," says Darrah. "What's incredible is that the piece starts out linear, structured and blurs as it goes on. It rockets to its conclusion, becoming increasingly fractured and increasingly upsetting."

Music director Osgood already knew Mazzoli's work when he received the score, but was unprepared for what he saw. Osgood found it vastly different from her other work: "Location, these incredible complex people, all of that is wrapped up in the piece." He describes the musical language as "wonderfully kaleidoscopic"--"very dark, very expressionistic."

He found that Mazzoli has imagined "very, very deeply what was going to happen on the stage," naturalistic theatre "in all its gravitas and angst," including the temperature of the room at any moment--and how interactions change the temperature.

While Mazzoli's score for BREAKING THE WAVES is unquestionably modern, opera-goers have nothing to be afraid of. The Works & Process preview was the second time I'd heard excerpts from the wonderful score. (It was featured as part of American Lyric Theatre's showcase at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, last February.) The music is gorgeous--lyrical, accessible and often "eloquent" though it can be spiky and is decidedly of this moment. As music director Osgood put it, "It's like Janacek lived now and wrote an opera about culture and society and mothers."

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BREAKING THE WAVES will have three performances at NYU's Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place in New York, January 6, 7 and 9.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.