Missy Mazzoli on the Empowering Tragedy of Breaking the Waves

Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli

Royce Vavrek

Royce Vavrek

A windswept, craggy landscape, a grueling, perilous oil rig, and an austere, devout community, these are the unforgiving surroundings of Bess McNeill in Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s operatic adaptation of Lars von Trier’s controversial and arresting film Breaking the Waves.

Set in remote Scotland, Bess McNeill is a simple, childlike woman in a town dominated by the Calvinist church. She finds love, both physical and emotional, in the arms of rugged, sensual oil rig worker Jan Nyman, but when Jan is paralyzed by an accident, she is torn between his voyeuristic desires, the disapproving eyes of her fellow townspeople, her protective family, and the extent of her own faith, fidelity, trust, and agency. This image of a woman struggling to meet other people’s expectations resonated with composer Missy Mazzoli. “As a woman this scenario is very familiar to me; I often have the feeling that the acceptable path of female behavior is razor-thin, that the actions and decisions that will satisfy society’s chorus of demanding voices are nearly impossible to sustain. Bess McNeil is a woman in an impossible situation with no choice but to carve out her own moral path.”

There is plenty of tragedy in the tale, one that makes it well suited for an operatic setting, and many opera goers (although certainly not West Edge regulars) may be unused to such contemporary treatment of sexuality and violence on the stage. Yet it is important to recognize that unlike the broader plots of classical opera, there is no clear “bad guy” here. No one is intentionally tormenting Bess or wishing her ill, in fact, it is their differing beliefs about what is best for her that drives her towards her end, perhaps the ultimate display of her own agency.

Many have accused Lars von Trier of misogyny, but both Mazzoli and Vavrek steadfastly defend the work as clearly asserting woman’s agency in misogynistic surroundings. Says Mazzoli “The female characters in Breaking the Waves are the strongest people in the opera - Bess in particular sticks to her own, albeit controversial and harmful ideas of what it means to be loyal and faithful. There are even two moments in the opera when Bess and her sister-in-law directly challenge the misogyny of the church.  The men resort to violence, raised voices and other petty ways of exerting power, while the women’s agency comes from a deeper, stronger, ultimately more confident place.”

Breaking the Waves plays August 10 and 16th at 8:30 and August 18th at 3:00pm as part of West Edge Opera’s 2019 Festival. Tickets are available at westedgeopera.org.

Brian Rosen