Cruel Geography: Sara LeMesh on Breaking the Waves

Sara LeMesh visiting the Isle of Skye

Sara LeMesh visiting the Isle of Skye

When General Manager Mark Streshinsky offered the roll of Bess McNeill to Soprano Sara LeMesh, the offer came with a warning: “Make sure you know what you’re getting into!” Streshinsky told LeMesh she wasn’t allowed to say yes until she saw the film and read the score. In an art form known for putting its characters through hell and back (sometimes literally), Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is particularly punishing, some might say cruel, in what it forces its protagonist to endure. 

LeMesh braced for the worst, but was drawn to the role, despite the emotional challenges. “She’s a young, hopeful character full of life and love and actually very positive. Her external circumstances are demanding and harsh but her inner personality is one of hope. She’s religious but not judgmental. It will be a special experience to look through the world through her eyes.” And though the events of the opera are brutally tragic, “It’s part of what happens to her, it’s essential to her story. It’s not just a thing that the director or writer thinks is interesting.”

The Isle of Skye Photo by Sara LeMesh

The Isle of Skye
Photo by Sara LeMesh

In preparation for the role, LeMesh visited the Isle of Skye, in Scotland where the opera is set. She found a staggeringly beautiful and primeval landscape with jagged rocks and lochs and an otherworldly feel. “It’s no wonder everyone in hollywood wants to film there.”

The geography deeply informs the story. It’s an isolating and unforgiving landscape which was only connected to the mainland with a bridge in 2006. Communities would necessarily be tight knit and, likely, quite homogenous. Conformity would be crucial to one’s survival, an outsider would be highly suspect, and castigation could easily lead to one’s death.

“The landscape was metaphorical as well”, LeMesh observed. “Like Bess, it’s feminine and vulnerable, but there’s also a core of deep seated strength, a willfulness. The highlands are pretty, but there’s also something striking and even dangerous about them.”

The Isle of Skye Photo by Sara LeMesh

The Isle of Skye
Photo by Sara LeMesh

When familiarizing herself with the score, LeMesh was struck by the choices made by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek in adapting the source material. Unlike film, an opera can’t use camera angles, composition, or cuts to lead the eye and inform the story, and the nature of singing gives the actor less latitude in how to deliver text. Fortunately, Mazzoli’s sensitivity as a musician and her understanding of the emotional workings of the voice makes LeMesh’s job easier. “Bess’s final scene is devastating. Missy did a great job creating that vulnerability musically. It doesn’t require as much work as an actor to get across; Just do what’s written and the audience will cry.”

Despite her preparations and intellectual engagement with the work, LeMesh admits she has no way of predicting what toll the piece will take on her. But she takes comfort in the knowledge that she will not be alone. “There’s no small participant in this opera. Everybody has these tragic moments. Everyone is going to have this emotional response. Not just Bess. It can be harder alone, but when you have people around you it can be a lighter process. You can learn about what another character goes through and talk about it in a rehearsal setting. I think it will be really challenging but also really fun.”

Brian Rosenbreaking