New Opera Award Goes To Mazzoli, Vavrek For ‘Waves’

Brooklyn-based Missy Mazzoli began work on ‘Breaking the Waves’ during her three-year tenure as Opera
Philadelphia’s composer-in-residence. (Photo: Marylene Mey)

BREAKING NEWS – Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek were together in the Di Bruno Bros. Italian grocery in Philadelphia when they got a Google alert about an early review of their opera Breaking the Waves, not long after its Sept. 22, 2016, premiere that opened the season at Opera Philadelphia. The rave review, posted online by Opera News, called the work “among the best twenty-first-century American operas yet produced.”

“That was our first inkling that people were really responding to it. It was amazing, life changing,” said Mazzoli, the composer of the work, which has a libretto by Vavrek. It was his idea to create an opera based on the dark, eponymous film by Lars von Trier about a marriage pushed to extreme tests of faith and love.

Librettist Royce Vavrek lives near Mazzoli in Brooklyn. (Ricardo Beas)

After many more glowing reviews, the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) has named Breaking the Waves winner of its first Award for Best New Opera in North America. The award, which recognizes musical and theatrical excellence, will be given annually to a fully staged work that received its world premiere in the preceding calendar year. “Of the new operas that I saw in 2016,” said Heidi Waleson, opera critic of the Wall Street Journal,  “I would say that Breaking the Waves was the most original, the most harrowing, and the most moving.” Read more about the Best New Opera Award on MCANA’s Facebook page.

Waleson and George Loomis, longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America, are co-chairs of MCANA’s awards committee, which selected three finalists from new operas submitted by members of the organization. Also on the committee are Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of the New York Times and co-New York correspondent of Opera (UK); and Arthur Kaptainis, a critic for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.

“It’s thrilling to be recognized by five critics I read regularly and respect mightily, and moving to know that Breaking the Waves stood out in a year full of fantastic new operas,” Mazzoli said.

Mazzoli and Vavrek will receive the award on July 19 during the MCANA annual meeting in Santa Fe, N.M. The other finalists were Fellow Travelers by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce and Anatomy Theater by composer David Lang and librettist Mark Dion.

Isle of Skye’s wild landscape inspired composer Mazzoli. (Nicholas Korkos)

MCANA president Barbara Jepson said the Award for Best New Opera reflects the association’s “mission to foster excellence. In their reviewing, our members recognize excellence. This award, along with MCANA’s web publication Classical Voice North America, is another way to do that at a time when classical music coverage in traditional print media is shrinking.”

Breaking the Waves, produced in conjunction with Beth Morrison Projects, was initiated during Mazzoli’s three years as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia, which provided unstinting support, even sending her and Vavrek on a 10-day trip to Scotland and the Isle of Skye, where the von Trier movie is set in the 1970s. “We wanted to make sure that we rooted the work in Scotland,” said the librettist, who first watched the movie and fell in love with it as a precocious 14-year-old growing up on a wheat farm in Alberta, Canada. “It was really important for us to feel the landscape and let that guide us in some of our choices.”

Soprano Kiera Duffy as Bess in the premiere. (Dominic M. Mercier)

Mazzoli was inspired by Scotland’s vistas. “The Isle of Skye has a very dramatic, sort of violent landscape,” she said. “There will be a soft rolling green field that ends in a cliff that plummets to the sea. There will be staggering rock formations that jut up out of nowhere. I really wanted to work that into the score, and I think you hear it from the first moment in the opera, this massive low chord, which, to me, is the sound of the landscape.”

Mazzoli’s score for the three-act, two-hour-and-15-minute opera has a cast of nine and a male chorus, with a 15-player chamber orchestra that includes electric guitar and harp. The Philadelphia premiere, directed by James Darrah and conducted by Steven Osgood, featured soprano Kiera Duffy as Bess, a devout young woman from a strict Calvinist sect, and baritone John Moore as her handsome Danish husband, Jan, who works on an oil rig in the North Sea. When Jan is paralyzed in an accident, he requests that Bess have sex with other men and describe her encounters to him as a way to keep him alive, and she chooses to obey as a matter of religious piety and sacrificial love.

It was the opera’s treatment of this provocative scenario for which Loomis, in his Financial Times review, praised the composer for “recognizing the musical potential of a relationship charged by both carnal excitement and deep spirituality.” A free audio stream of the Sept. 29, 2016, performance can be heard here.

Breaking the Waves went on to have its New York premiere in January at Prototype, the annual festival showcasing new work that Morrison co-produces with HERE arts space. Mazzoli said that additional productions of the opera are on the horizon but can’t be announced yet.

Baritone John Moore portrayed Jan, paralyzed in an accident. (Dominic M. Mercier)

Mazzoli and Vavrek, close friends who live within a 15-minute bus ride of each other in Brooklyn, are on a creative roll. Her first opera, Song from the Uproar (2012), set to a libretto she wrote with Vavrek about early 20th-century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, has performances July 17-21 at Cincinnati Opera. The two have a new opera in the works, Proving Up, about homestead settlers in 1870s Nebraska, co-commissioned by Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, and the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. Proving Up will be presented by all three companies in 2018.

In the last five years, Vavrek has written librettos for 11 operas, a prolific output that includes Angel’s Bone, for which composer Du Yun won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for music. The House Without a Christmas Tree, which Vavrek is doing with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, premieres at Houston Grand Opera Nov. 30.

The MCANA award reflects the abundance of  new American operas being written and produced today. In 2016, apart from Breaking the Waves and the other two finalists, the lineup of notable premieres also included The Shining, JFK,  Shalimar the Clown, and It’s a Wonderful Life. “Companies take pride in commissioning new work,” Vavrek said. “I think it’s a golden age for American opera.”

John Fleming has written for Musical America, Opera News, Opera and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.

In the Opera Philadelphia world premiere of ‘Breaking the Waves,’, Bess (Kiera Duffy) asks permission from
the Church Elder to marry. (Nicholas Korkos)

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