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Photo by Dominic M. Mercier, Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Translating Film to the Stage: Composer Missy Mazzoli and Librettist Royce Vavrek on Breaking the Waves

Translating Film to the Stage: Composer Missy Mazzoli and Librettist Royce Vavrek on Breaking the Waves

Photo by Dominic M. Mercier, Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Opera Philadelphia will premiere Breaking the Waves, a new chamber opera by composer-in-residence Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, September 21–October 1. Inspired by the 1996 film by Danish auteur Lars von Trier, the opera tells the complex, harrowing tale of Bess, a naive newlywed who has chosen to marry outside of her strict Calvinist community in coastal Scotland. The opera will include a cast of eight featured singers, a chorus, and a 15-piece chamber ensemble drawn from the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra. Tickets are available online.>>

In advance of the premiere, we invited Mazzoli and Vavrek to share insights into their artistic processes and inspirations.

Missy, how do you think about your role as the composer in driving and illuminating this narrative?

“The process of creating opera is, for me, the most fascinating and fun when I’m writing for very complicated characters. Each individual in Breaking the Waves has an extremely intricate psychology, and it’s been exhilarating to create music that illuminates this complexity. Bess in particular is a character with lots of different beliefs and temperaments, and therefore lots of different kinds of music that swirl around her. One of the real strengths of opera is that music can easily communicate more than one thing at the same time, even within the same melody or chord. As a composer I’m able to bring nuance to each character and drive the narrative in unexpected ways; jagged, uncomfortable music is often paired with an unexpectedly sweet melody or harmony, and all of it serves whatever is happening in the narrative. It helps that there really isn’t much underscoring in the film; I felt that I had space to imagine a sonic world that is complementary to, but very different from von Trier’s.”

How did you think about the imagery of the film, or of the Scottish Highlands setting, when composing the music for this opera? Is the score reflective of particular imagery?

“I found the landscape of the Scottish Highlands to be one of very stark contrasts. There is an omnipresent, green lushness in the summer, dotted with jagged rock formations and lined with terrifying cliffs and a rough sea. The score reflects this intensity—the Isle of Skye is a quiet place, but I felt that it was in fact a loud landscape that called for very bold and direct music. When Royce and I were walking along one of the cliffs I could very clearly hear the first chord of the opera, fully orchestrated, almost as if it were bursting out of the ocean next to us. The visual character of the film was also a big influence on the sonic world of the opera; there’s a real intimacy in the way von Trier used muted, desaturated tones and hand-held cameras that are often very close to the actors’ faces. It’s a challenge to create that kind of intimacy on stage, but I’ve actually tried to communicate it through the music itself by using repeated, short motives, and by using solo and chamber subsets of the full orchestra.”

Royce, you’ve said that you’ve loved the film Breaking the Waves since you were a teenager and that it’s a narrative you’ve “carried with you.” How did you approach translating the film, and what responsibility did you feel to the original narrative and cinematic elements?

“When I was 14 I saw Breaking the Waves for the first time and it represented so many things to me: a new type of film that wasn’t being screened at my local cinema, a completely new perspective that made me ask many questions of myself and my self-identity, and a story that was so bold and singular it literally took my breath away when I saw a single clip televised as part of the 1997 Golden Globe Awards (my very first exposure to the movie). The story and the characters have become kindred to me, and so my responsibility lies more in translating the emotional truth of the film to the operatic stage than anything else. While the work is a faithful adaptation of the narrative that von Trier created, my version with Missy has to be able to live independently. And then there are the operatic tools—the aria, swirling choruses, motivic ideas that blossom throughout the show—that give the story new means to plumb the depths of the characters’ psychologies.”

Missy and Royce, what do you think live performance can offer that film cannot? How does it transform the audience’s understanding and experience of the work?

The music, libretto, design, staging, performances, and each individual audience member’s personal experience come together to transcend any particular element. Music connects with us emotionally in a way that film alone cannot—there’s a thrilling physicality to watching an opera singer live on stage. We also experience the narrative very differently when there is a musical score driving the narrative. Sometimes the music guides us through an emotional journey, but even more often, in this particular operatic treatment, the music subverts or shades whatever is happening on stage, providing a fresh way of experiencing the story.”