The New Opera, Breaking The Waves: What Would Mozart think?

Warning - some of the images below may be disturbing to some viewers.

Perhaps you know you have suffered an arts experience when you find yourself thinking about the performance two days later.  Maybe you can’t exactly say you liked it; you also can’t say you didn’t.  It has engaged you in an aliveness, a relationship, and will not let go until you come to terms with it.  That is my reaction to Breaking The Waves, a new opera by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, produced by Opera Philadephia for its world premiere on September 22.  When my wife asked what I wanted for my birthday, I stated attending this opera as my first choice.  I, for one, am hungry for new opera.  We attended the final performance on Saturday night at the Perelman Theater.  I covered the announcement of this production briefly in my report on Opera Philadelphia’s 2016-2017 season back in April.

 John Moore as Jan and Kiera Duffy as Bess.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

John Moore as Jan and Kiera Duffy as Bess.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The opera is based on the 1996 film by the same name, which I have not seen.  The movie received critical acclaim and some box office success.  The story is difficult to convey in a few words.  A young woman, Bess, in a tightly controlled Calvinist community in rural Scotland marries an outsider, Jan.  Jan is paralyzed in a oil rig accident, and she pursues a dark path to save him, believing she is serving God and her husband by doing so.  I will only say further that it has interweaving themes (God, religion, hypocrisy, community, love, sex, mental health, the nature of goodness, and sacrifice) that are gripping. 

 Kiera Duffy as Bess and John Moore as Jan.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Kiera Duffy as Bess and John Moore as Jan.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Michael Bolton, Vice President of Community Programs at Opera Philadelphia, gave the pre-opera talk and discussed these issues and their portrayal in the opera.  He also talked about staging the opera and pointed out that when contacting singers to invite them to auditions that a first question was "are you willing to appear nude?"  There was concern whether classically trained opera singers would be able to sing well in the nude.  He talked about reactions to the opera so far.  A few audience members were back for a second or third showing.  One came back to focus on listening to the music this time.  It came out in the discussion that the composer’s mother and an aunt of the lead soprano were in the audience.  Mr. Bolton asked them if they would comment to the group on what this opera has meant to their family members.  Each pointed out with pride the hard work and dedication they had seen go into it.  It was revealed that Ms. Mizzoli spent four years composing this opera.  She was sponsored for three of these years by Opera Philadelphia as a resident composer, which gave her the opportunity to work with other artists, preview segments of her opera for feedback, and learn more about the craft of composing.  Other events were scheduled concerning the opera such as a Brunch with Missy Mazzoli.  I, again, as I did earlier this year in attending Cold Mountain in Philly, got the feeling that Opera Philadelphia is responding to and reflecting a vibrant arts community in the Philadelphia area. 

Like the woman mentioned above, I wish I could hear the music again.  My attention was strongly on the story and the acting and singing.  I can’t tell you how the music stands alone, but I can tell you it was effective.  The orchestra included just 15 musicians.  The percussionist had an number of interesting instruments, such as a car suspension spring.  There were brief inclusions of electric guitar played as recorded by Missy Mazzoli, who has played in a band, but these were woven seamlessly into the score.  When I noticed the music it was always supporting the singers and the story and the mood.  The arias were tightly integrated into the story.  None stood out to me for humming after the performance.  However, both the vocals and music were effective in telling the story and making it come alive.

The voices fit their characters and each performer sang well in their individual roles.  Kiera Duffy who played Bess deserves special comment.  She is a good soprano.  I can’t say yet just how good.  She is a great actress.  Of that I am sure.  Her performance was key to the entire production and she was brilliant.  He co-star John Moore, baritone, was also effective in his role and singing.  The male chorus was menacingly effective and contributed to the dream-like character of the opera.  The set design was minimalist, a couple of gray walls and angled blocks of flooring.  Projections on the wall of ink or oil oozing about help set and maintain the mood, manifesting the feelings I sometimes had oozing over me.

 Kiera Duffy as Bess with other men.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Kiera Duffy as Bess with other men.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

There was full male and female nudity in the production, in keeping with the telling found in the movie.  I found it a little shocking being live, even though such nudity and language can be seen on cable TV any day of the week.  It must be daunting for singers who might want to appear in future productions.  Was it integral to the story?  It was.  Was it salacious or gratuitous?  No, it was not.  Would the opera have been as effective without the nudity?  I doubt it; it added significant impact to the drama.  I was in no way offended.  What I can say for sure is that this opera worked as it was performed and presented.  Change it and it might not work.  For me, Waves was actually better than Cold Mountain which I liked very much.  As always, the thrill of seeing new opera added additional excitement.

The timing was remarkable for me.  I enjoyed seeing the Washington National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro a week ago.  Figaro and Waves could hardly be more different in styles.  I was more affected by Waves, but I enjoyed Figaro; I think that the third time around for me,  Figaro has become more of an entertainment experience than an arts experience.  I wonder what Mozart would think about Waves.  I bet he would like the sexual aspects, and in particular, the shock value of the sex.  What would he think of the music?  I bet he would think it was creative and inventive and that it worked.  He would like its originality and the freedom available to its composer.  What else?  Keeping in mind that I am not trained in music, It seems to me that for both Cold Mountain and Breaking the Waves, the music was very much in service of the story.  Interestingly, I had the impression that Puccini was moving that way in La Fanciulla del West which I saw recently.  But in general for the great composers of the past like Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and a few others, it sometimes seems to me that sections of the music are there for their own sake.  An aria might be as much a vehicle for the music as it is in service of the story.  How would today's approach set with Mozart?  Not well perhaps.  We can't really say, but Breaking the Waves was not composed for 18th century audiences; it is cutting edge for now.  It is opera that connects us with our time.

Professional reviews of this production are accessible by links in the performance listings in the sidebar to the right (or bottom on a mobile device).