Opera Philadelphia

Breaking the Waves Synopsis

Isle of Skye, Scotland, early 1970s


Bess finds love with an off-shore oil rigger, Jan, and they are married in the strict Calvinist church of her hometown. Though they receive the church elders' blessings, Jan is viewed as an outsider. Bess takes her marriage vows seriously, even as she undergoes a sexual enlightenment with her new husband. Jan must return to the rig to work, forcing Bess into a deep depression. Bess's mother attempts to control her daughter's moods and threatens to return her to a mental hospital. Bess's sister-in-law Dodo warns Jan of his wife’s fragile emotional and mental state.

In conversations with God, Bess seeks answers and solace, and secretly asks that spiritual intervention bring Jan home early. A near-fatal accident on the rig forces Jan to return home under unexpected circumstances as Bess contemplates her own desires…



Bess learns that the accident on the rig has left Jan almost completely paralyzed. She believes it to be her fault and obsessively seeks redemption. Attempting to liberate his wife, Jan encourages Bess to find men for sexual encounters. When Jan tries to kill himself, Bess becomes certain that she must obey her husband and find new lovers. Failed attempts with strangers coincide with a decline in Jan's health, but Bess notices that Jan's health stabilizes as some of her new sexual explorations occur.


Bess's reputation catches up to her, and she is excommunicated from the Church. She fails to understand why, and her fervent resolve to save Jan is only renewed. Bess finds herself aboard a large commercial ship where she is savagely raped and mutilated by sailors. Her body is delivered to the hospital. She dies in Dodo's arms as Jan wakes from surgery, his health dramatically improved. The elders agree to provide Bess a Calvinist funeral, but insist she be buried a sinner and consign her soul to hell. Dodo denounces the Elders’ actions and assists Terry in a bold choice. Jan, who has fully recovered, says goodbye to his wife. Bess has one last gift for Jan…

MapPerelman Theater

Dates are Sept. - Oct. 2016.

Thu, Sep 22 7:30 p.m.
Sat, Sep 24 2:30 p.m.
Tue, Sep 27 7:30 p.m.
Thu, Sep 29 7:30 p.m.
Sat, Oct 1 8:00 p.m.

Approximately two hours and 29 minutes including one 20-minute intermission

Major support for Breaking the Waves has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the William Penn Foundation, and the Wyncote Foundation at the recommendation of Daniel K. Meyer, M.D.

Additional support is provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, and OPERA America's Opera Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

Additional commissioning support by: Allen Freedman and Judith Brick Freedman; Chris Ahearn and Marla Mayer.

Co-commission with Beth Morrison Projects

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