Composer of Breaking the Waves discusses the many challenges of adapting Lars Von Trier's controversial moral drama Breaking the Waves for the stage
Statistically, it's not often performances of opera come with a warning of adult themes, nudity, violence and strong language. Whereas it was possibly a PC close call on the Edinburgh International Festival's Cosi fan tutte three years ago, this year's European premiere of Breaking the Waves is very definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Based on the 1996 film of the same name by Danish director Lars von Trier – himself no stranger to controversy – Breaking the Waves, with music by American composer Missy Mazzoli and libretto by Royce Vavrek, is a moral drama set in a Free Presbyterian coastal community in the Scottish Highlands.
After suffering a devastatingly debilitating accident, Norwegian oil rig worker Jan encourages his young wife Bess to go forth and have sex with other lovers and recount the experiences to him as a way of keeping their own romance alight. 'I think Breaking the Waves is, in part, about a woman who is in an impossible situation,' says Mazzoli. 'Everyone is telling her what to do and they are all telling her different things.'
Of course, it goes without saying that the staunch Calvinist, god-fearing villagers aren't quite on the same wavelength as Jan on how to keep a marriage going. For Mazzoli, it's meat and drink. 'A friend once described me as a sex 'n' death artist. I took it as being a great compliment,' she says, adding firmly that this particular piece is an opera for adults, not toddlers.
The opera is, however, about so much more than sex and death. For Bess, the emotionally heart-wrenching situation she finds herself in is unparalleled. 'There can be six different emotions going on at the same time,' says Mazzoli, 'but it's not depressing or morose. I've tried to infuse a sense of lightness in the music itself. There is something psychologically leading towards lightness in the story.'
credit: James Glossop
Opera is the ideal vehicle for dealing with the big stuff of life and in the case of Breaking the Waves, the headline themes are morality, goodness, faithfulness and love. It is also about Scotland. Mazzoli and Vavrek took a road trip around Scotland as part of their research in making the adaptation from the film.
'Being in Scotland had a huge impact on the sound of the music itself,' says Mazzoli. 'We went to Glasgow and Edinburgh, but spent most of the time on the island of Skye. I'd never been in a landscape that extreme before. There was such contrast between its lush greenness and the violence of the rock formations that break out over the sea,' she says. 'You hear that in the opening chords of the opera. It's my depiction of Skye, a long low chord with the waves breaking on the rocks.'
The title of film and opera is von Trier's but Breaking the Waves is an apt name in different ways, and not just how it reflects the physical waves of the shoreline. Bess herself is breaking the powerful wave of tradition and the whole of the society in which she lives. 'Bess is complicated,' says Mazzoli. 'She's described as being simple, but in that simplicity is her strength. There is something astonishingly strong about her. It's all about layering. Every other character resorts to yelling, violence and calling on God to suppress other people, but Bess never does that.'
It's not that the other characters are – apart from two sadistic sailors – bad. Everyone is acting with the best of intentions to do good and, indeed, von Trier's idea was to make a film about goodness. The husband, unusual though his behaviour might be, is acting from a stance of goodness, of wanting to set his wife free. The mother and elders of the church may come across as unlikeable people we probably wouldn't choose as our friends, but they are also trying to do the right thing.
'It might sound a bit New Age-y,' says Mazzoli, 'but I hear the story as one that sings to me. I watched the film and felt that there was space for music. There is no real score in the film, so there was space for my own emotional interpretation.'
In scoring the opera, Mazzoli writes for what she terms 'beefed-up chamber orchestra', with solo winds and brass, strings and electric guitar. 'Whenever God appears we hear electric guitar,' she says. In addition to the nine principal singers, there is a men's chorus, helping to convey that the society in which the opera takes place is male-dominated.
Breaking the Waves provides its audience with much food for thought. 'Opera is a place for big ideas,' says Mazzoli, 'and not a place for simple answers. If people go to the pub afterwards and don't speak about it, well, I don't want that.'
Breaking the Waves is a wrenching moral drama about a woman’s twisted bargain with God. Based on Lars von Trier’s controversial film, US composer Missy Mazzoli’s opera won the 2017 Best New Opera Award at the Music Critics Association of North America and was shortlisted the same year for an International Opera Award.