Published27 Jun 2016
Opera Philadelphia Launches 2016-2017 Season with World Premiere of Breaking the Waves
Adaptation of the Lars von Trier film debuts in five performances, Sept. 22–Oct 1
Opera Philadelphia looks forward to launching the 2016-17 season with the world premiere of a new company co-commission, Breaking the Waves (Sep 22–Oct 1). Inspired by Lars von Trier’s searing Oscar-nominated 1996 film, the new three-act chamber opera draws on the talents of three of today’s foremost young creative artists: composer Missy Mazzoli, librettist Royce Vavrek, and director James Darrah. Starring soprano Kiera Duffy and baritone John Moore, the world premiere production is scheduled to take place over five performances in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater under the baton of Steven Osgood. This represents the most recent of the “new and challenging works” (Daily Beast) yielded by Opera Philadelphia’s innovative American Repertoire Program. Founded in 2011 with a commitment to producing a recent American work in each of ten consecutive seasons, and thereby fostering a new generation of homegrown opera composers, the program confirms the company’s role as “one of the leading instigators of new work in the country” (Opera News).
Below, see Mazzoli, Vavrek, and Darrah discuss the opera over Scotch whiskey.
Mazzoli, Vavrek, Darrah and Breaking the Waves
Variously described as “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York” (New York Times) and “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” (Time Out New York), Missy Mazzoli is a key figure on the contemporary music scene. Similarly, Alberta-born, Brooklyn-based librettist and lyricist Royce Vavrek has been recognized as “an exemplary creator of operatic prose” (New York Times), while Los Angeles-based director James Darrah, a recent Musical America “New Artist of the Month,” has been credited with creating “one of the strongest, most theatrically imaginative, musically and dramatically compelling productions” (Wall Street Journal) of Britten’s Peter Grimes.
It was after seeing her first collaboration with Vavrek – a “ravishing chamber opera” (New York Times) titled Song from the Uproar – that Opera Philadelphia, under the leadership of General Director and President David B. Devan, selected Mazzoli to undertake a three-year tenure as the company’s 2012-15 Composer in Residence. As a result, she explains, “I feel like I’m now steeped in theater and have a better understanding of what I can do. It’s no exaggeration to say the residency changed my life.”
Devan believes Breaking the Waves exemplifies Opera Philadelphia’s commitment to telling varied stories created by passionate and visionary contemporary artists. He says:
“I couldn’t be more proud of our company, the creative team, and our partners for supporting and realizing a work as powerful as Breaking the Waves. Opera is a spatial medium with endless possibilities. Creating characters with real depth, and a sophisticated sound world to represent them and their landscape, Missy and Royce used every resource at their disposal to capitalize on these possibilities.”
The decision to adapt Breaking the Waves for Mazzoli’s first full-length opera was Vavrek’s. He recalls:
“I have loved the movie Breaking the Waves since I saw it when I was 14, I believe. I watched it on VHS. It’s been a narrative that I’ve carried with me for my entire life, and when Missy and I were talking about what we would potentially do for our follow-up to Song from the Uproar, it just seemed so perfect. I could hear Missy’s music in the narrative, and I understood it as a collaboration that would become much more than the sum of its parts.”
On its release 20 years ago, Lars von Trier’s film took the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes and was hailed as a “fierce, wrenchingly passionate film” by the New York Times, which went on to select it as one of the top ten films of the decade. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, it depicts a tragedy of conflicting ethical imperatives: between the pure love of child-like Bess McNeill for her husband, Norwegian oil-rig worker Jan, and the repressive morality of her deeply religious Calvinist community. When Jan becomes paralyzed after a near-fatal offshore accident, he begs Bess to take other lovers and share the details, insisting that this will keep their passion – and him – alive. She puts herself in increasingly dangerous sexual situations, convinced that by doing so she can save him. Her self-sacrifice leads to her denunciation, excommunication, and eventual demise, but also to the finale of divine grace with which the story – a meditation on the nature of goodness – concludes.
Mazzoli came whole-heartedly to recognize the project’s potential, and she and Vavrek traveled to the Isle of Skye together, to immerse themselves in the landscape that inspired it. She says:
“Opera is a place where big ideas can flourish. They’re long enough that big ideas can unfold, and Breaking the Waves is all about big ideas. … Everyone always thinks about the sex and the violence – it’s an intense film – but I think these ideas – what is the nature of goodness, what is the nature of loyalty, what is the nature of faith – we think these things are black and white but there are huge gray areas. What happens when they contradict each other: that is so much more juicy and interesting and rich and operatic.”
In particular, the composer found herself drawn to the characters of the film’s two female leads, Bess and her faithful sister-in-law, Dodo. She adds:
“I’m really interested in creating complex female characters because it’s so rare that in any medium you get a truly complicated female story. I think a lot of people will point to Lars von Trier as a misogynist and say that Breaking the Waves has those elements in it, but I think that the most misogynist, sexist thing you can do is to deny a woman any kind of depth or complexity. I think these movies where women are reduced to these shopaholic, man-obsessed, shallow creatures – that, to me, is misogyny. Breaking the Waves is the opposite of that. Yes, Bess is obsessed with a man, but there’s so much going on, and every moment she expresses this complexity and this psychological depth.”
Mazzoli and Vavrek collaborated closely with director Darrah, who was intimately and creatively involved at every stage of their process. About the world premiere production, Darrah notes:
“It is Mazzoli’s vision for a unique orchestral and vocal world for Breaking the Waves that has shaped every element of the directorial approach to the show. She mixes bold electric guitar with the clear presence of a string quartet and we, in turn, match bold projection onto Plexiglas with clearly defined and delineated characters – the parallels are endless but fully rooted in both the story and the score. On their own, the music and visual design are merely two distinct elements, rich with potential but awaiting activation – experienced together, however, they create a powerful sense of setting and internal geography that’s just as effective in locating the story as any film set. By eschewing direct representations of physical geography we are able to make the story palpable, immediate, and unapologetically visceral in a way that is totally distinct from what Von Trier achieves in the film.”
Opera Philadelphia has assembled a first-rate cast to realize the creative team’s vision. To create the role of troubled Bess, the company chose soprano Kiera Duffy, known for her “penetrating insight and luminosity” (New York Times). Singing opposite her as Jan is John Moore, who impressed Opera News with his “arresting burnt-umber baritone and personality to burn.” Tenor David Portillo, whose voice moved Opera News with its “luxuriant warm glow that seduced the ear,” portrays Jan’s sympathetic doctor, Dr. Richardson, and Eve Gigliotti lends her “rich and resonant mezzo” (Time Out New York) to the role of Bess’s faithful sister-in-law, Dodo. Rounding out the stellar cast are soprano Patricia Schuman as Bess’s unbending mother, bass Zachary James as Jan’s friend Terry, and baritone Marcus DeLoach as the church councilman and elder.
Under the leadership of Steven Osgood, who also conducted Song from the Uproar when it premiered to rave reviews in New York, Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere production features set design by Princess Grace Award-winner Adam Rigg with costumes by Emmy Award-winner Chrisi Karvonides, lighting by Stage Raw Award-winner Pablo Santiago, and projections by Suzi Bass Award-winner Adam Larsen.
Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program
Breaking the Waves is just the most recent in a string of new works presented under the auspices of Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. The past year saw the East Coast premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, which “reaffirmed the power and high quality of the composer’s first-ever opera” in a “memorable theatrical experience” (Opera News), as well as the company’s first two world premieres in four decades, both of which reflect its commitment to programming works relevant to the multicultural Philadelphia community. ANDY: A Popera is an opera-cabaret hybrid inspired by Andy Warhol, and Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD is an Opera Philadelphia commission that contemplates the life and death of the eponymous jazz legend. After premiering in Philadelphia, YARDBIRD made its first New York appearances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, inaugurating Opera Philadelphia’s new long-term partnership with the storied venue, and is scheduled to make its European premiere June 9-17, 2017 at London’s Hackney Empire, presented by Hackney Empire and the English National Opera. The program also yielded such earlier success stories as the East Coast premieres of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize; Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, an Opera Philadelphia co-commission starring Frederica von Stade; Theo Morrison’s Oscar, written for countertenor David Daniels, who starred as Oscar Wilde; as well as a production of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters that built on the success of its New York premiere. Future projects include two 2017 world premieres: Elizabeth Cree, by the Silent Night team of composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, and We Shall Not Be Moved, by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist and spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones.
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. Described as “the very model of a modern opera company” by the Washington Post, Opera Philadelphia was the only American finalist for the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company. The company is charting a bold new path to September 2017, when Opera Philadelphia will open its 2017-18 season with an immersive, 12-day festival featuring seven operatic happenings in six venues throughout the city. The first festival, “O17,” will feature three world premieres, plus the exclusive East Coast appearance of Barrie Kosky’s groundbreaking production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and a recital by superstar soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Opera Philadelphia will continue to present a spring season each year, including three additional productions in February, March, and April, making it the only U.S. opera company producing an annual opera season that begins with a dynamic festival.
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