Q&A with Composer in Residence Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli has been dubbed “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York” (The New York Times) and “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” (Time Out New York).  She recently premiered a new work at Carnegie Hall as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival, and this season has featured premieres of newly commissioned works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and pianist Emanuel Ax.  Missy was appointed to the Composer in Residence program in September 2012.

In Double ExposureMazzoli will present two scenes from a chamber opera she and librettist Royce Vavrek are currently writing, based on the Oscar-nominated 1996 film Breaking the Waves, written and directed by Lars von Trier. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, the opera tells the story of a religious young woman, Bess McNeill, and of the love she has for her husband Jan, a handsome oil rig worker. When Jan becomes paralyzed in an off-shore oil rig accident, Bess’s marital vows are put to the test when 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 their love for each other will keep him alive. Bess’s increasing selflessness leads to a finale of divine grace, but at great cost.

Marnie Breckenridge performs “His Name is Jan” from Breaking the Waves at 21c Liederabend at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

What has your experience been like as a Composer in Residence at Opera Philadelphia?

It’s been amazing because usually in conservatory you don’t learn how to write opera. And I didn’t learn much about writing for the voice at all while I was in school. But I had this urge to tell stories and to do these big spectacles combining everything I was interested in: visual art, philosophy, drama, theater, literature, and especially music. And opera is really the natural way to do that. So I felt really ill equipped to write opera but had the artistic urge to do that as my next big project. So this residency really came at the perfect time.

You’re basing Breaking the Waves off of a film. How do you see film influencing opera in the future?

I think it’s a very common thing for opera composers to look at a pre-existing narrative as inspiration for their work. La Bohème is based on a novel, Carmen is based on a novel, Barber of Seville is based on a play. And I think that if there had been films at that time opera would have also been based on film, too. So I really feel like it’s going to happen more and more.

What composers have influenced your work?

In terms of opera, really Benjamin Britten is a huge influence, and also John Adams. And I have to mention Phillip Glass even though my music is not like his at all. The experience of going to his operas, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, made me realize the extent to which you could push a narrative. Satyagraha is all in Sanskrit and there are no subtitles so he tells the story in different ways and that sort of opened me up to different ways of storytelling and timing. Einstein on the Beach is my favorite opera. It was a really profound experience to see it live.

With your background and use of electronic musical components, do you find it difficult to blend electronics with traditional orchestration?

No, I really started working with more traditional combinations and then about 10 years started incorporating electronics into the work. But even the way that I use the electronic elements all have their basis in live sound. So it will be a sampled voice or a sampled instrument but just processed and manipulated. I rarely synthesize my own sound so it’s not like it’s coming from a totally different world its sort of an extension of the acoustic instruments or the voice.

What is it like to see two different directors present your piece back to back?

I think that oddly the best thing for me, and it’s not something I expected, was that having two different directors and having so many creative voices in the process helps me to stay out of it and to not feel like I have to control every aspect of it. I am really just able to let them do their thing because there’s so much going on that I really want to let them put their own interpretation on top of the music. I feel like I’ve said a lot through the music and now it’s up to them. And there are infinite number of layers to the story and you can go infinitely deep into the story – there are these psychological layers and often two things happening at once so there’s an infinite amount of interpretation and these two directors have their own interpretation and are focusing on very different psychological parts in each scene. That to me is really interesting. So we’re taking it to a level that I never could have dreamed of when I was writing the music.

What can you tell us about the process of showing this piece while it’s still being worked on?

It’s interesting because these two moments and these two scenes are complete within themselves so in a sense they’re not really in progress but the way they fit into the whole work is yet to be seen. I could throw all these away and not use any of this material in the final opera if I feel like it’s not working with the piece as a whole. What I don’t want is the audience to get attached to anything they see, which is another reason I think that it’s great because you have two different interpretations. We’re not saying that we’re going to go with one or either of these interpretations – it could be something totally new.

Do you find this experience with Double Exposure to be helpful to the life of your work?

Absolutely. It’s incredibly helpful to see the work embodied by singers. There’s only so far you can go with imagining it in your mind and then as soon as someone is in front of you who has to sing and move and embodies the characters personality, it changes the way that you have to think about it. It’s hard to say how but I know this whole experience will have a really deep impact on the rest of the work and my writing in general.

What else are you working right now?

Really, my next project is writing the full opera. I’ve cleared out a lot of stuff to be able to focus on that. I am also writing a string quartet for Ethel, and then a couple of other pieces in the works. I’m also finishing an album with my ensemble Victoire that will release next year. It features a work that just premiered at Carnegie Hall a couple weeks ago.