Opera Composer Missy Mazzoli Is Pushing Boundaries and Breaking Ceilings

Opera Composer Missy Mazzoli Is Pushing Boundaries and Breaking Ceilings

Missy Mazzoli is having a good year. Her third opera is set for its New York premiere this week at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, and The Metropolitan Opera just announced commissions from Mazzoli and Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”) — the first time ever that the company has commissioned a work by a woman. An active supporter of young female composers and a trailblazer in contemporary American chamber opera, Mazzoli has been helping to revive the genre — a more accessible form that doesn’t require a full orchestra and large chorus — to critical acclaim. “Proving Up,” her latest effort and collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek, is based on a short story by Karen Russell about a Nebraskan family’s struggles in the years following the Civil War.

In a recent conversation with ALL ARTS, Mazzoli discussed her approach to writing about the American dream following the economic disaster of 2008, gender disparity in classical music and what the future looks like for American opera.

ALL ARTS: What inspired you to write an opera based on this specific story by Karen Russell?

MISSY MAZZOLI: Well, in 2008 around the time of financial crisis and the recession, I had the idea to write an opera about the American dream. But I wanted to find a way to do it that wasn’t preachy or heavy handed or too tied directly to what was going on in our country politically.

And when I found Karen’s story, I thought, oh, this is actually a story about the American dream and the sort of origins of the American dream and the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and, you know, this rags to riches idea that is such a part of American culture. But it was done in a way that was so surreal and strange that I thought it would be the perfect thing for the operatic stage.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s “Proving Up” at the Miller Theatre. Photo by Rob Davidson.

AA: Can you describe your creative process in working with Royce Vavrek? I know this is the third opera you’ve created together.

MM: Yeah, Royce is my best friend and we talk every day and we live a mile apart from each other in Brooklyn, and we see each other almost every day, so it’s a very close working relationship. Royce will write the libretto first. In this case it was with obviously a huge amount of information from the story itself, but he molds it into an operatic form — into a libretto. And then I just sort of took it from there. And along the way there’s a lot of back and forth about what works musically and dramatically, which is really a process of discovery as we’re writing the piece.

AA: How do you go about setting music to a story? Where do you begin?

MM: I try to listen to what the characters in the story are telling me. I think that if you listen to the characters hard enough that they’ll tell you what notes they want to sing. And really, the whole of the emotional landscape of the work and the sort of tension in the work comes from what I imagine these characters are feeling and thinking. I think opera is all about subtext. You have all these layers — you have what the characters are singing, the words themselves, but then you also have this musical layer that can contradict that or support that in really interesting ways.

So you can have lots of layers of psychological complexity. I just try to really clue in to what’s going on in the minds of these people on stage and these characters in the story and then try to illuminate that in interesting ways.

AA: What is it about the medium of opera that attracts you as an artist?

MM: Well, I’ve always been inspired by other human beings and even my totally instrumental work has a very narrative, human side to it. Human beings are the most interesting things to me. The ways in which we negotiate power or find agency or the ways we get ourselves out of impossible situations on a day-to-day basis is so fascinating. And also the way that people relate to each other is endlessly fascinating to me. The way that they manipulate each other or support each other. The human capacity for kindness, cruelty — there’s just so much there.

So I think considering that, opera is a natural fit for me. And I also love the collaborative process. I really love working with directors in particular, conductors, set designers, storytellers to create something that is a truly immersive experience — to create a whole evening for an audience to live in for a few hours. And this is something that’s hard to do when you’re just writing, like, a 10-minute orchestral piece. But opera provides a way to surround your audience with a world that you’ve made.

AA: Do you think chamber opera is making a comeback?

MM: I do! I think we’re in a sort of new Golden Age of American opera. You know, I think people in general are hungry for stories that reflect their lives and reflect what’s going on, particularly in America, in our country right now. And people more than ever are tuned in to diverse stories and stories by people who have not had the chance to tell stories for centuries. So I think that it really is an exciting time. And there are all these programs and institutions and programmers who are sympathetic and accepting of new work. And all that coming together has created a really vibrant wonderful scene.

AA: What do you think the world of opera is missing or lacking right now?

MM: Diversity in its creators. You know, The Met just announced these commissions — for the first time it has commissioned two women — myself and Jeanine Tesori. And that is fantastic and I’m so grateful to sort of lead the charge on that. But it also took them a long time and there are plenty of opera companies out there who have never commissioned a woman.

And I also think we need more work. Looking at what’s going on with very progressive companies, like Opera Philadelphia or Beth Morrison Projects here in New York — those shows seem to all sell out and are very popular, and they are doing lots of contemporary, new work. I think audiences are hungry for stories that reflect their own lives, whether that’s in a new production of a Mozart opera or a totally new work based on a subject that really resonates with people, and I think most opera companies are not as committed to contemporary work as they should be.

AA: How do we get more marginalized voices represented in opera?

MM: Well, it’s simple and it’s hard. I mean, the simple answer is you just commission them. I can name 50 brilliant young female composers who would write the most amazing opera. And I can name almost just as many composers of color who would write the most amazing opera. But they’re just not the names at the top of the list. For me, the complicated part of it is that it’s a problem that starts early in our education as musicians. Speaking for women, a lot of young women are discouraged from entering the field at a very young age. So when you don’t commit yourself to the task within your late teens you’re already at a disadvantage. I think that paying more attention to younger women who show an interest in classical music and writing opera and expressing themselves in this way is really essential if we’re going to shift the landscape.

AA: What does it mean to you to be commissioned by The Met?

MM: Oh, it’s a dream come true! I’ve dreamed of this since I was like 10 years old. This is tremendous. And it’s not just about my being a woman — it’s about The Met’s commitment to new and exciting work that pushes boundaries. And all my work does that and that’s what I will continue to do. And also, this is not going to be the last round of commissions for women from The Met. If opera is going to survive we all have to commit ourselves to more diversity and a more balanced array of artistic voices.

AA: What does the future of opera look like?

MM: Who knows! [laughs] I think it’s very exciting. Six years ago when I premiered my first opera, the operatic landscape didn’t look anything like this and I could have never anticipated this new commitment to contemporary work and the awareness around the gender disparity in particular. I really hope that we continue to go in that direction and that we see riskier works and support of people who have maybe never written an opera before but have tremendous potential to create something new and vibrant and exciting.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s opera “Proving Up” will be performed at the Miller Theatre on Sept. 26 and Sept. 28. Click here for ticket information.

Top Image: Composer Missy Mazzoli. Courtesy of Caroline Tompkins