Missy Mazzoli Keeps It Surreal
The composer Missy Mazzoli is a trailblazer—undeterred by obstacles, undaunted by the salacious.
Missy Mazzoli is a trailblazing composer for orchestra and opera. Her work Vespers for Violin received a 2019 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Raised outside Philadelphia, Mazzoli studied at Boston University, Yale School of Music, and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. She is best known for her operas with librettist Royce Vavrek that explore surreal yet human stories. Breaking the Waves (2016), an adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s provocative film, was nominated for an International Opera Award. She was one of the first women to receive a main stage commission from the Metropolitan Opera, for her fourth opera, Lincoln in the Bardo. Her compositions have also been performed by BBC Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, LA Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York City Opera, and Opera Philadelphia. She teaches at New School.
Mazzoli is an active TV and film composer, and writes and performs music with her indie rock band Victoire. She co-founded the Luna Composition Lab to mentor aspiring female-identifying, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming composers.
Born and raised in a working-class Philadelphia suburb in the 1980s, it was hardly inevitable that Missy Mazzoli would grow up to become one of the most successful composers of her generation. Her journey began at age 6 when her parents brought home an old piano from a flea market.
Missy Mazzoli: It really just took hold of me. I knew that I needed a life in music, I knew that I needed a creative path.
But Mazzoli also knew that she wanted to combine her many interests, visual art, theater, poetry, literature, storytelling, and composition brought them all together. In the past decade, Mazzoli has enjoyed a steady flow of commissions from the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, and the Minnesota Orchestra. All this between touring with and writing for her indie band, Victoire. Then, there’s the opera. After creating acclaimed works for Washington National Opera and Opera Philadelphia, she got an unprecedented offer, a commission from the mighty Metropolitan Opera, making her one of the first women composers in its 136-year history. Yet, Mazzoli is characteristically undaunted. Indeed, she’s become known for her bold subject choices that embrace the messiness of the human condition in sometimes shocking ways.
Mazzoli: There’s a lot of violence and sex and death in my operas, because those are the most interesting things in the world, to most people, certainly to me, and I don’t feel the need to leave on a happy note all the time, or to make the audience feel comfortable, or to coddle people, and I think that that coming from a woman, in my experience just stirs up a lot more criticism than when a man writes a piece that is violent or sexual.
Mazzoli’s most controversial piece to date was 2016’s Breaking the Waves, an operatic retelling of Lars von Trier’s polarizing 1996 film, the story of a devout Scottish woman who engages in violent extramarital sex at the behest of her disabled husband. And though von Trier’s original story was criticized for its misogyny, Mazzoli had a different take.
Mazzoli: For me, it’s a story about a woman in an impossible situation, who has everyone around her telling her what to do at all times, and the staging reflects that in that it’s usually Kiera Duffy as Bess McNeill in the middle and then all the men in the piece surrounding her, there’s only three women in the piece, but there’s a lot of men, and an entire men’s chorus. So that was really the way that I approached it. And I feel that that’s something that I can relate to. That’s something that every woman in my family can relate to. And also, the idea of using your sexuality as a source of power when you have no other obvious source of power, is also something that’s very familiar, I think to most women, myself included. Jan, her husband’s motivations, are unclear, and that to me is actually the great power of the story, is we don’t know why he’s telling her to do what he’s telling her to do. Is it selfless? Is he trying to set her free because he knows that she’ll always remain chained to his bedside if he doesn’t do this? Is he wicked? Is he just a dirty old man? Is he brain damaged? I mean, these are all possibilities that you could go home with your own conclusion, and not be wrong in deciding any one of those three things. But the thing that I decided is that it doesn’t matter what his intentions are because of what she believes. This is her story, this is about what she believes. She believes that she is setting him free by doing what she’s doing, and that was what we focused on.
(Excerpt from Breaking the Waves)
Men drill deep, drill deep
Men drill deep, drill deep
My body is a map
Of our life together
Where Jan begins
Where Bess begins
Is now settled
Mazzoli followed up Breaking the Waves with 2018’s Proving Up, adapted from Karen Russell’s fictional often surreal story of the Zegner family, struggling to make a life in Nebraska on the back of the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered all Americans 160 free acres of land in the so-called unsettled west, but despite their most earnest efforts, the Zegners fail. Mazzoli was drawn to the story in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, which laid bare important assumptions woven into the promise and the premise of the American dream.
Mazzoli: That anyone can do anything and be anything no matter where you come from. And that’s the version of the American dream that was sold to immigrants settling the west, you know, settling in quotes, because there were already a lot of people settled there, a lot of Native Americans, but I feel like that’s what was sold to me as a young person. I grew up in a working-class family outside of Philadelphia, and we did not have a lot of money at all, but my parents were like, no but you can do anything. Like, we work so that every successive generation will move further and further. And oh, you wanted to be a musician? Do it. And it kind of worked out. I feel like I benefited from that sort of magical thinking. So, it’s not all bad, but it’s just interesting to me, how little that has changed throughout the last century until now, you know now as an adult I think I’m seeing the darker side of it and I think a lot of people, for the first time, are seeing that maybe that’s not true for most people—
AJC: Well, you may well be the last generation. I mean, the idea is that you do better than your parents.
AJC: So now with crippling college debt, and real wages not improving in the last 20 years, lots of gig jobs, I think it’s really difficult now, but maybe my memory’s bad, maybe it was terrible for every generation.
Mazzoli: Well, yeah. That’s another part of it. We do put this glossy picture on it. It wasn’t even great for the immigrants in the 1880s. And that’s sort of what I also wanted to show through the opera Proving Up, was that I think history is written by the winners, and I wanted to tell a story that was not told by the winners, because the families that didn’t make it out on the plains, usually don’t have heirs, people who are descendants of homesteaders are usually descendants of more successful homesteaders.
Missy Mazzoli’s upcoming opera for the Met is based on a story with a fantastical tilt, George Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo. It imagines the great president surrounded by ghosts as he mourns the death of his 11-year-old son, Willy.
Mazzoli: I think that stories that are surreal or have an element of magic or magical realism work really well on the operatic stage because opera itself is so surreal. You have these skilled athletes, these freakish voices, going to extremes, in even the most sort of mundane, realistic opera, and everyone’s singing all their thoughts, like we’re already in a strange world, so I try to run with that, and I try to find stories that have a little bit of that magic woven into the storyline, and then I just try to normalize that. And so, Lincoln in the Bardo and all of George Saunders’ writing is perfect for this. Everything is very surreal but also very human, you know, very funny. There are a lot of really body-silly moments in this book, and it just seemed to have everything. And I also really liked the fact that it was centered around this character that everyone has an opinion about. Everyone has a relationship with Abraham Lincoln, and so you put him on stage and people already feel, they just feel rooted and safe, and so that would allow me as the composer and our set designer’s gonna have a ball, and the librettos, everyone is gonna have so much fun with this, because they can just go to town and go really wild because it’s this character that everybody knows, and this story that is, in a way, it’s a simple story about the space between life and death, and letting go, but it also tackles these big themes. I think that’s the other thing. I think opera is a place for big ideas, and so I try to tackle themes like what is the nature of goodness in Breaking the Waves, or the American dream in Proving Up, in Lincoln in the Bardo, you’re dealing with the death of a child, and grief, and what happens after we die. I mean, these are big things that kind of fit on the bigness of the stage.
AJC: And the Met is a pretty big ship to steer. I mean if your band is a Sedan with four people sitting in it, the Met is an ocean liner. Are you daunted at all by having to sail that ship?
Mazzoli: No, not at all. I mean, I’ve written three operas. The opera that I write for the Met will be my fifth, so I’ve been steering 18-wheelers between the Sedan and the ocean liner, and I feel, I’ve wanted to write for the Met since I was 15, so while it may seem to the outside world like it’s a big leap, I’ve been preparing for this for a really long time.
Missy Mazzoli represents a sea change and an exciting, previously unforeseen, future for opera, one in which the opera is forced to face the sometimes-traumatic ambiguities of the human experience, and to come away with more questions than answers.