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Missy Mazzoli gears up for the world premiere of 'Breaking the Waves'

The Lansdale native pushes opera's boundaries in unexpected ways.
Marylene Mey

Religion, paralysis and sex — these are not story elements seen in traditional opera, but composer Missy Mazzoli is certainly breaking new ground in her latest work — “Breaking the Waves" — a three-act opera based on the 1996 Academy Award-nominated film by Lars von Trier. Set in the Scottish highlands in the early 1970s, it tells the story of the deeply religious Bess, who is asked by her recently paralyzed husband to seek other lovers. Mazzoli chatted with us during a rehearsal break at the Kimmel Center about bringing “Breaking the Waves” to the stage, the inspiration behind the score and her favorite places to hang out in Philly.

When did you decide to transform “Breaking the Waves” into an opera?
My librettist, Royce Vavrek, suggested that we adapt this into an opera. It’s such a brilliant film with such a particular visual language. While we follow the story closely, the whole experience is very different from watching the film.

What makes it different?
So much of the power and intensity of the film comes from extreme closeups of the actors’ faces. How do we create the feeling of a closeup in an opera? It’s really the music that has the intimacy to do that. There’s no real score to “Breaking the Waves,” the film. There’s some music but it’s '70s rock. The music [in the opera] illuminates the psychology and inner life of a character. The character can say one thing but the music can allude to something different.

What inspired the score?
My librettist and I went to Scotland in 2014 when we were beginning the process of writing this piece. We didn’t know what was going to be inspiring to us. The landscape of Northern Scotland was a landscape of extremes — green, lush, rolling hills and jetting rock formations. The setting found its way into the music. There are chords I think of as rocks and the rolling string lines represent the lush green parts of Scotland. We delved into the Gaelic song tradition that’s very unique to the area, too.

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Will Lars von Trier get to see “Breaking the Waves” in opera form?
I don’t know if he’ll ever see it. We got the blessing from his production company and they didn’t put any restrictions on us which we are very grateful for.

What should the audience expect?
It’s not a piece that calms you down. [Laughs] I hope people come expecting to be stirred up emotionally by this story. I love art that makes me uncomfortable. There’s so many elements you can focus on.

I know you’re Brooklyn-based now but you’re originally from the area. What are your can’t-miss Philly spots when you’re in town?
I’m relearning Philly because I grew up in the suburbs in Lansdale but never got to experience the city as someone old enough to drink. I love the Franklin Mortgage Company cocktail bar, Dandelion, the Amish lunch counter at Reading Terminal Market. And Parc on Rittenhouse Square makes me feel like I’m in France.

“Breaking the Waves” makes its world premiere with Opera Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 22 and runs through Saturday, Oct. 1. For tickets, visit: operaphila.org.

 
 
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