Royce Vavrek: Forthright at the Opera
Royce Vavrek doesn’t court controversy, but it seems to follow in his shadow. The celebrated opera librettist and lyricist says if his work provokes, it’s not to advance any personal agenda.
Royce Vavrek is a lyricist and librettist for contemporary opera. His piece Angel’s Bone with composer Du Yun won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Vavrek grew up on a farm in rural Alberta, Canada, and studied film at Concordia University in Quebec. He completed an MFA in musical theater writing at NYU and moved into opera through American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program.
His lyrics present flawed characters in unconventional plots. The prize-winning Angel’s Bone tackles human trafficking in the story of angels kidnapped by a hapless couple. JFK imagines the president fighting his demons the night before his assassination. Breaking the Waves, with frequent collaborator Missy Mazzoli, adapts a provocative Lars von Trier movie. Over a dozen companies have commissioned Vavrek’s work: Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, Norwegian National Opera, and Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. He has also written for film, musical theater, and classical concerts, and is the cofounder of opera-theater company The Coterie.
Royce Vavrek has been known to stir the pot. For the past 10 years, he’s reveled in bringing diverse shades of humanity’s ugliness to the stage. From adultery and murder, to kidnapping and torture.
Royce Vavrek: I’ve always been sort of a rabble rouser, a troublemaker.
Vavrek is a librettist. He writes the lyrics for operas, and he’s one of the most eclectic, and most successful, of his generation, part of a cohort dedicated to making sensational thought-provoking opera for the 21st century. Take his latest three-part work, “The Wild Beast of the Bungalow”.
Vavrek: It’s about a girl who is gifted a mermaid in a jar, and she proceeds to abuse it until one night it offers this sort of graceful gesture to her, that you hope will have changed her, but she ends up just going back to her abusive ways. And there was something about the way that I approached that. It feels so authored from a place of right directly in the middle of my heart. There are all these little references, and strange elements that feel that they borrow from my childhood.
Vavrek’s own childhood was fairly conventional, growing up in rural Alberta, Canada, a young Royce preferred writing in his room, to tending the family farm.
Vavrek: I had no desire to participate in farming. That was something that I knew from a very early age was just not necessarily for me, but I never had any sort of negative thing where I was like “I do not wanna be like my mom or my dad or my brother or sister,” I just kind of did my own thing.
Royce was an imaginative child, who would recruit his siblings and cousins to perform in his homegrown shows, but backyard playtime wasn’t enough, and soon, movies became his window into the world beyond his small hometown. Until one day, at 13, he stumbled upon a film that changed his worldview. Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is the story of a twisted husband who, after becoming paralyzed in a work accident, demands that his wife, Bess, sleep with other men in their small, devout Scottish town. Years later, in 2016, Vavrek would adapt Breaking the Waves into a much-talked about opera.
Vavrek: There was something about that emotional ferocity that just completely blew my mind. I remember renting it on VHS, and I took it to my friend’s house, and we watched it on a tiny little television, and I, for some reason, my memory is that my nose was like right up against the glass. But I remember this very uncomfortable but singular viewing experience, and it really, really changed my life.
But as a teenager, he had no inkling of what was to come, yet he understood that he had discovered something important. From then on, Vavrek abandoned stories with moral certainty and happy endings and set about writing the most provocative tales he could think up. By the end of high school, he had written 17 plays, some of which were put on at his school, St. Joseph Catholic. But young Vavrek’s shows—one about a murderous nun, and another about a pig who gets plastic surgery—caused a stir in his conservative surroundings.
Vavrek: The Catholic Women’s League in my local town had heard that I was performing some controversial material and wrote a letter to the principal of my school, and to the priest, and were begging him to reprimand me, and my mom saw this letter on a pew at the local parish, and she became so incensed. Because, she was like, “none of these people, none of these women, have seen my son’s work, it’s on hearsay and they just have no idea.” And she took her name off the church cleaning list because of that. My parents were remarkably, remarkably supportive, although my mom, I remember when I told her that I was writing a piece about abortion, she sort of had a moment, an emotional moment, where she was like, “well why can’t you just write about sunflowers?” I said “well, I could write about killer sunflowers or something like that.”
This was the start of a long and winding path for Royce Vavrek. First, he went to film school in Montreal, but caught the musical theater bug after a weekend in New York City taking in Broadway shows. And at 22, he moved there, to study at NYU, where he found himself in the right place at exactly the right time.
Vavrek: There was an advertisement that came over the musical theater writing forums, that suggested that there was this opportunity for people who were interested in contributing to the operatic forum, and so I found this community of young composers, David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, Du Yun, Paola Prestini, who were all really eager to contribute dramatic stories to the music theater form.
Vavrek and his close cohort of peers have spent the past decade shaking up the opera world, unexpected plots with flawed characters that audiences love to hate, and sometimes hate to love. Like Angel’s Bone, his Pulitzer Prize-winning collaboration with composer Du Yun, in which a broke, struggling couple finds hope for redemption when they discover two angels that have fallen to earth. They kidnap the angels, and enslave them, to turn around their own wretched circumstances. Vavrek’s libretto explores both the mindset motivating the captors, and the dark effects of their actions in a heart-wrenching portrait of human trafficking.
Vavrek: I try to do as much research as possible. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, it’s sort of your duty to really dig in, and to try to learn as much as humanly possible about that experience. But, you also have to give yourself — there’s a time when you need to put the books away, and the media, and all of those things, and let this character live in your imagination, and let it spill out into the work that you’re creating.
In 2016, Vavrek faced a particularly intensive research project when he was trying to write an honest story about President John F. Kennedy. That opera, JFK, set the night before he was assassinated, shows a man mourning his sister, Rosemary, recently debilitated by a failed lobotomy, while he faces mounting pressure from a country in the midst of social revolution, all the while, haunted by his own personal demons.
Vavrek: We tried to create a figure that wasn’t this God, that was just a normal man who happened to be the president of the United States, and have this crazy event happen that just shook the world. But really, opera is an emotional art form, and I think that trying to find the current, the emotional current, in the life of JFK and in that blink of an eye moment was really the answer to our opera. I think that it’s… there’s something really beautiful about the warts, as they say.
This is part of the philosophy that drives Vavrek, and his collaborators. They push the boundaries of the forum with stirring, novel stories that have the power to engage a younger generation with more cynicism, and more media options, than ever.
Vavrek: I think that it’s important that we give the audience agency to make up their own minds, so I think that yeah, my work is often a little ambiguous. Moralizing is not— it’s just not interesting.
His approach is working. Vavrek’s operas are attracting ever-larger audiences. In 2021, he and Missy Mazzoli are slated to bring their twisted storytelling to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the world’s greatest stage, and a place that, at one time, Vavrek wouldn’t have even dreamt of.
Vavrek: I saw my first opera when I was 18 or 19. Opera for me was this elitist form, so it was this thing that, you know, people arrived with huge ball gowns, and tickets were so expensive, and those chandeliers at the Met, my goodness. And so they were sort of the antithesis of my farm upbringing. But it’s interesting now that I am, I’m so desperate to make opera for everyone.
And making opera for everyone means meeting head-on the human condition, and all its glory and misery. Royce Vavrek makes stories that others couldn’t, or wouldn’t, by refusing to write off any character for their thoughts, feelings, words, or even actions. He forces audiences to question their own values, to judge others a little less quickly, to listen a little more deeply.