This Emerging Composer Is Opera's Next Big Star - OZY | A Modern Media Company

This Emerging Composer Is Opera's Next Big Star

This Emerging Composer Is Opera's Next Big Star

By David Knowles


Because an old genre is getting an update. 

By David Knowles

Composer Missy Mazzoli’s epiphany arrived at an early age. She was 16, sitting on her bed at home in rural Pennsylvania, listening to Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking “Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.”

“I felt like, ‘Oh I know what’s going on here. I understand this. This is making sense to me,’ ” Mazzoli remembers thinking. Just then, her younger sister entered the room and pulled a sour face. “She was like, ‘This isn’t music,’ and I said, ‘No, it is!’ It all had a kind of order to it instead of sounding like chaos, which is how it seemed to sound to her.”

Her little sister’s attitude toward classical music mirrors that of much of America’s — but Mazzoli herself may be on the verge of changing that. The 36-year-old composer, described by TimeOut New York as “Brooklyn’s post-Millennial Mozart,” has seen her work performed by classical music’s A-list, including Kronos Quartet, Maya Beiser, the L.A. Philharmonic and New York Opera. Unlike the blink-blonky, atonal endurance tests that can define modern classical music, her style blends electronic and traditional instruments, punctuating ethereal textures with dramatic dissonant crashes, challenging listeners while also inviting them into the fold. In January, Breaking the Waves, her second full-length opera, made its New York premiere at the Prototype Festival at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, solidifying her standing as one of opera’s best new talents.

David Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia, where Mazzoli is composer-in-residence and spent three years developing Breaking the Waves, sees her as a rare talent in the opera world. “She’s part of a handful of emerging composers who are now the authors of the future of opera and are adding their own unique voices to the form,” Devan says.  

Based on the 1996 Lars von Trier film of the same name, Breaking the Waves tells the story of a deeply religious young woman’s sexual awakening. After the man she falls in love with is paralyzed in an oil-rig accident, he encourages her to take other lovers and relay her experiences back to him. The promiscuous turn, however, proves disastrous, resulting in tragedy that New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe likened to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In writing Waves, “I really felt like I’ve found the place where I was supposed to be,” Mazzoli says.

“It is not easy to find new operas that command attention, tell their story lucidly and create a powerful, permeating mood,” Woolfe wrote in his Times review. “Dark and daring, Breaking the Waves does all this with sensitivity and style.” The same adjectives could also be used to describe Mazzoli’s teaming with Victoire, an ensemble dedicated to performing her work that has featured such noted musicians as Bryce Dessner (The National), percussionist Glenn Kotche (Wilco) and producer and composer Lorna Dune.  

I’m a 36-year-old woman living in Brooklyn in 2016. There’s a lot of the classical tradition that does not work for me. 

Mazzoli herself is at home in many forms, writing for orchestras, operas and VictoireOn stage, the group utilizes synthesizers, drum machines, clarinet, violin and vocals to create music that sometimes feels like Philip Glass at a rave. “I’m a 36-year-old woman living in Brooklyn in 2016. There’s a lot of the classical tradition that does not work for me,” she says. “I’m interested in what’s going on in the noise scene, the more experimental music scene, the improvisation scene in jazz — you’re just surrounded by music of all kinds all the time.” 

To be sure, classical music has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, with composers like Mazzoli, Dessner and Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood all eager to further dismantle the barriers that have kept genres from mingling. But in the particularly staid world of opera, where precious few new compositions reach the stage, let alone remain for longer than a brief run, debate still rages over whether postmodern compositions will ever be embraced by audiences. “It’s challenging, complicated music to respect, not to love,” David Gockley, San Francisco Opera’s general director, told WQXR’s podcast “Conducting Business.” Mazzoli somehow manages to straddle that divide, in part because of the “emotional current” that librettist Royce Vavrek feels running through her work. “She has an amazing ability to use her music as a dramatic engine in the operas we’ve created together,” Vavrek says. “What’s so exciting about the new music world right now is that it pays to be unique, bold, radical.” 

Opera’s convention of staging dramatic stories has helped ground Mazzoli’s compositions, and she pushes it forward today by integrating narratives of a modern time. Devan calls her a “dramatist, like Verdi,” and not just a composer. Opera News critic David Shengold, who calls Breaking the Waves “one of the best operas gestated in this century,” sees the time Mazzoli spent at Opera Philadelphia as integral to her understanding of “large theatrical forms played in larger spaces.” Her highly anticipated next opera is Proving Up, which is set to premiere in 2018 at Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and the Miller Theater in New York. Based on a short story by genre-bending author Karen Russell, the opera chronicles the hardships faced by a family of homesteaders heading out west just after the Civil War and examines the mythology behind the American Dream

Away from the stage, Mazzoli’s Brooklyn apartment serves as a rehearsal space and laboratory. It’s cluttered with amplifiers, keyboards and overflowing bookcases; the cozy living room has a funky mixture of ornate moldings and framed pictures of Frida Kahlo. It’s here, in this unassuming home, that Mazzoli is staking her claim in opera’s future.

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