It’s like the fable about the butterfly and the thunderstorm. A teenager in northern Canada in 1997 watches a film made in Scotland by a Danish director, and 22 years later there’s an opera at Edinburgh International Festival.
Breaking the Waves, based on Lars Von Trier’s movie, by American composer Missy Mazzoli with libretto by Royce Vavrek (that Canadian teenager), opens in Edinburgh this week. Having been staged to widespread acclaim in the US in 2016, it has its European premiere at the festival in a new production directed by Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris.
Fast forward to 2014. Vavreck is a playwright and celebrated librettist who has worked with Missy Mazzoli on projects including Songs from the Uproar. Mazzoli is on a three-year residency at Opera Philadelphia, one of the companies spearheading a new wave of contemporary opera in the US, and is looking for a big project. Vavrek suggests Breaking the Waves.
“And I said ‘Absolutely not!’” Mazzoli says, when we meet during rehearsals in Glasgow. “Really because I think it’s a fantastic film and I didn’t know what else I could bring to it. But then I watched the film again and I realised, there’s a lot of space here, actually. There’s a little music but there’s no underscoring in the film. I liked that I could bring something to the story that was different from the film.”
Vavrek and Mazzoli spent a week in Scotland visiting the locations where the movie was filmed. Set in a remote and strictly calvinist island community in the 1970s, Breaking the Waves is the story of Bess McNeill, who falls in love with oil worker Jan. When Jan is horribly injured in an offshore accident, he asks Bess to take other lovers, making her choose between her love for him and the constraints of her faith and community.
Mazzoli says: “I heard the beginning of this opera when we were wandering around Skye – that never happens to me. There’s a violence and a lushness to that landscape, and the two are often right next to each other. That informed the instrumental parts of the opera, the whole thing, really. That’s where it started.”
Mazzoli realised early on that she wanted the opera to have an all-male chorus. “To me, this is a story about a woman in an impossible situation. Everyone around her is telling her what to do, and they’re all telling her different things. I had this vision of her being surrounded by all these men telling her what to do. I like extreme decisions, so I made the decision to have a male chorus before I wrote a note, and that defined the sound for me in a very particular way.”
The film was criticised in some quarters for portraying Bess as a victim of male coercion and, ultimately, violence, but Mazzoli and Morris believe the story is more complex. Mazzoli says: “When Lars Von Trier was writing the film, he said he wanted to make a film about goodness, in which everyone acted in the way they felt was the most good, and still everything fell apart and horrible things happened. That has been the thing we keep going back to. The line of acceptable behaviour is razor thin for a woman in Bess’s situation.”
Tom Morris says: “She is a sort of radical in her application of the idea of love to change the world that she is in. There’s something being stirred up in the story about what happens when there is a love so radical that the community that is witnessing it can’t tolerate it. The tactics she chooses to pursue are intolerable to the world but, I think, pure for her. Looked at in that way the story becomes very resonant for all kinds of idealism, historical and present.”
Staged by Opera Philadelphia in 2016, Breaking the Waves won the Best New Opera Award from the Music Critics Association of America, and was shortlisted for an International Opera Award. Mazzoli says: “I feel that opera, at least in America, is having a second golden age right now. There’s an explosion of creative work in all different scales, with different subject matter and different levels of abstraction. I don’t think of traditional opera as a contemporary art. As a 38-year-old woman living in Brooklyn in 2019, I couldn’t see a way in. But when this started to happen about 10 years ago, it made me feel like I had a place in opera.”
Tom Morris, the director behind shows such as War Horse, Touching the Void, and ENO’s recent production of The Death of Klinghoffer, says: “I think when opera was invented, it was the technological equivalent of virtual reality gaming. It was the art form which threw every available technology at the business of storytelling. When you have people like Missy seizing this opportunity to write with such emotional force in operatic form, you can feel the possibility that opera is going to re-expand its audience base.”
Breaking the Waves is at the King’s Theatre until 24 August