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Missy Mazzoli

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Breaking the Waves (2016)
Work Notes
Based on the film by Lars von Trier (Zentropa Entertainments3)
Text Writer
Royce Vavrek
G Schirmer Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
2 Hours 0 Minutes
small men's chorus, 12-14 singers
Solo Instrument(s)
2S, Mz, 2T, Bar, 3B-Bar
Programme Note
Missy Mazzoli Breaking the Waves (2016)
Audio on-Demand:
Opera Philadelphia

   BESS McNEILL: Lyric Soprano
   JAN NYMAN: Baritone
   DODO McNEILL: Mezzo-soprano
   TERRY: Bass-baritone
   MOTHER: Dramatic Soprano
   SADISTIC SAILOR: Bass-baritone
   COUNCILMAN: Bass-baritone
   Small Chorus (Tenors and Basses/Baritones only,
      12-24 singers)

Short synopsis:
Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill, a religious young woman with a deep love for her husband Jan, a handsome oil rig worker. When Jan becomes paralyzed in an off-shore accident, Bess’s marital vows are put to the test as he encourages her to seek other lovers and return to his bedside to tell him of her sexual activities. He insists that the stories will feel like they are making love together and keep him alive. Bess’s increasing selflessness leads to a finale of divine grace, but at great cost.

Childlike Bess finds love with the off-shore oil rigger, Jan, and they are married in the strict Calvinist church. While they receive the church elders' blessings, Jan, a Norwegian, is viewed as an outsider. Bess takes her marriage vows seriously, and undergoes a sexual enlightenment with her new husband. It is only a matter of time before Jan must return to the rigs to work, forcing Bess into a deep depression. In conversations with God, Bess seeks answers and solace, and hopes that spiritual intervention will bring Jan home. Shortly thereafter, a near-fatal accident on the rig forces Jan to be rushed to emergency medical attention.

Bess learns that the accident has left Jan almost completely paralyzed. She believes it to be her fault, having asked God to bring him home. Jan knows that Bess would never step outside her matrimonial covenant, but feels that he needs to set her free so that she can live a full life. He encourages her to find men to sleep with and report back to him the events that transpire so that it will feel like they are making love. When Jan tries to kill himself by pill overdose, Bess becomes certain that she must obey her husband and find lovers. Failed attempts to woo a handsome doctor, and half-hearted sexual encounters with strangers coincide with a decline in Jan's health. When Bess finds a man and has sex with him outside an old shed, Jan's health stabilizes.

Bess's reputation catches up to her, and she is excommunicated from the Church. She fails to understand why, as she is simply following her husband's will, and his recovery seems directly proportional to her extramarital activities. Bess finds herself aboard a large commercial ship where she is savagely raped and cut up by sadistic sailors with knives. A second trip leaves her near death's door, and it is only due to the kindness of a stranger that her nearly lifeless body is delivered to the hospital. She dies as Jan wakes from his surgery, his health dramatically improved. The elders agree to provide Bess a Calvinist funeral, but insist she be buried a sinner and consign her soul to hell. Jan, who has fully recovered, steals the body before she is interred, committing her remains to the ocean. God's bells ring out Bess's melody.

Composer note:
I have never had a story sing to me like Bess McNeill's in Breaking the Waves. Immediately upon seeing this film I felt that Bess's crushing vulnerability, steadfast faith and shocking bravery could manifest in a refreshing and provocative new character on the operatic stage. I imagine music that illuminates the complexity von Trier brings to his characters — a chorus of men sing a hymn that is beautiful but chilling in its austerity, Jan sings to Bess of his desires in a way that is at once tender and calculating, Bess sings a delicate melody with a turbulent and distorted accompaniment that hints at her inner rages and longings. In creating music for Bess McNeill and her world I see an opportunity to create a new kind of heroine, and a new kind of opera that presents complex characters in an intricate and unblinking light.
— Missy Mazzoli

Librettist note:
I have been haunted by the story of Bess McNeill since first seeing Lars von Trier’s film in 1997. A boy of only 14, I first sat arrested by the plight of Bess, in many ways, feeling a kinship with her. I did not know then how informative the film would be, but it has sunk into my marrow, become part of my body’s chemistry, and I carry it with me as the foremost example of the power of storytelling. In Jan, Bess finds a man with whom she joins into an unbreakable covenant with God, a marriage that breaks open the floodgates of one of the most passionate romances I’ve encountered in the cinema (or any other medium, for that matter). Bess’ journey is operatic: from her unbridled commitment to Jan, to his absences that lead to her desperation, to her unquestioning willingness to put herself in harm’s way believing that her sexual sacrifices will save his life. Her story sings, and with Missy I believe that we can translate her singular narrative into an important, intoxicating work of contemporary opera.
— Royce Vavrek

The Guardian, 21 September 2016
The Inquirer, 19 September 2016

Trailer - Opera Philadelphia

Works & Process at the Guggenheim

Composer Missy Mazzoli, librettist Royce Vavrek, and director James Darrah discuss the opera

  • 13 MAR 2020
    Breaking the Waves Country Premiere
    Adelaide Festival
    Festival Theatre / Adelaide / Australia
    Scottish Opera

    Other Dates:
    15 March - Festival Theatre / Adelaide / Australia

Yet there’s an irresistible power at work here, exerted by both the narrative and the score in which it’s clothed. No matter how insistently your intellect may be scoffing, the emotional and even spiritual dimensions of the tale keep pulling you in.

That was true of the film, and it’s equally true of the opera, which boasts a limber libretto by Royce Vavrek and a score that is redolent at every turn of the craggy Scottish coastline. In adapting their material, both creators have been faithful almost to a fault — the opera hits all the same expressive and dramatic marks that the movie does.

What it adds is an overt allegiance to the operatic tradition. For all its scenes of wedding-night coitus, phone sex and brief partial nudity, “Breaking the Waves” stands easily alongside the artistic models of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss.
Joshua Kosman,,11/08/2019
Mazzoli has produced an opera as potent as its model…

Mazzoli's music…excels both at creating atmosphere and underscoring emotions. A frequent technique involves long-spanned instrumental lines that intersect to create richly diverse harmonies, but there is considerable variety in motivic content. While Mazzoli's music is not averse to abrasiveness, its capacity for expressivity is especially striking.
George Loomis, Musical America,27/09/2016
Mazzoli’s music is richly psychological, scoring each character in arousing and vivid patterns while summoning the power of the North Sea and the harsh majesty of the Highlands. At the same time, Mazzoli shows great restraint in depicting the emotions and moral complexities of the story (set to a libretto by Royce Vavrek), intensifying the unease produced by juxtaposing jarring sex scenes with moments of tortured religiosity. With this work, Mazzoli is solidly on the map of opera composers to watch.
Steven Pisano, Feast of Music,27/09/2016
…savage, heartbreaking and thoroughly original…

Ms. Mazzoli’s score deftly balances trenchant arias with a kaleidoscopic orchestration whose layers and colors suggest Messiaen, Britten and Janáček but is finally all her own. The brittle, glassy high strings, the accordion-like sound of a melodica, the crashes of percussion, even an electric guitar, are elements in an unsettled harmonic tapestry that evokes Bess’s turbulent inner world as well as the violent landscape around her. Every bit has meaning...
Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal ,26/09/2016
Missy Mazzoli…has created the most startling and moving new American opera in memory…

May Mazzoli continue to write operas of this power!
Albert Innaurato, Parterre Box,26/09/2016
If opera is the art of emotional extremity, few subjects are as operatic as "Breaking the Waves," the 1996 Lars von Trier film that has been adapted by the composer Missy Mazzoli and the librettist Royce Vavrek. Its doomed protagonist endures trials at least the equal of Tosca’s or Madama Butterfly’s…

Nervous fragments are scattered throughout like ripples and swells atop an ocean, for an overall orchestral texture that’s moody, yet with a clean neutrality that elegantly sets off the vocal lines that soar above it, rather than competing with them…

Writing for an orchestra of just 15 players, Ms. Mazzoli confidently creates a range of densities, from symphonic weightiness to agile sparseness. In a series of split-personality dialogues with God — think of Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" — Bess swerves between righteousness and remorse: passages that Ms. Mazzoli shoots through with wailing electric guitar and menacing choral chant. The effect is different from Mr. von Trier’s harrowing intimacy, but it has its own vividness…

It is not easy to find new operas that command attention, tell their story lucidly and create a powerful, permeating mood. Dark and daring, Breaking the Waves does all this with sensitivity and style.
Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times,25/09/2016
Unquestionably, Opera Philadelphia has developed, produced, and premiered a powerful, fully realized, artistically significant piece with Breaking the Waves. The creative team of long-promising artists — composer Missy Mazzoli, librettist Royce Vavick, director James Darrah, and soprano Kiera Duffy — all seem to surpass themselves simultaneously and with a common dramatic purpose…

Breaking the Waves is exhilarating.

Most vocal lines strike the right balance of dramatic intention and language intelligibility. Secondary elements such as transitional music and choral interludes create a sociological soil out of which everything else grows.

Though much of Mazzoli's previous music came from the ambient and minimalist worlds, this score is a dramatically bubbling tapestry with a ceaselessly inventive, dramatically concise orchestration. The industrial-sounding percussion is novel. But there are also minor miracles of simplicity when a cello pizzicato charts the state of a character's soul.
David Patrick Stearns, The Inquirer,24/09/2016
Chief among the successful elements is Mazzoli’s music. She writes gracefully if not always memorably for voices, in a style that shows some influences (Benjamin Britten, in the melismatic flights) but is distinctively her own. I particularly like a signature motif of phrases that end with unexpected upward or downward slides, capturing some of the unsettling feeling of von Trier’s…well, love story (if we can call it that). But Mazzoli’s greatest triumph is the often marvelously original orchestral textures, which include some surprising instrumentation (glockenspiel, melodica, tam tam, car suspension spring, and even, briefly, an onstage record player)…

I don’t always take the opening night audience’s response as a good barometer of a new work, but this time, I think they got it right. The final scene clearly disturbed some. There were audible gasps, and a moment of silence when the lights went down. But then — whoops and cheers…it’s a powerful new work, and one that should be seen.
David Fox, Philadelphia Magazine,23/09/2016
Mazzoli's music lived up to the hype her work has engendered: Breaking the Waves stands among the best twenty-first-century American operas yet produced.
David Shengold , Opera News,22/09/2016
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