'Breaking the Waves' of a New Kind of Opera

At Prototype Festival, Missy Mazzoli's Lars von Trier adaptation makes a strong case for an alternative Friday evening activity.

by Emerson Rosenthal
12 January 2017, 2:55pm

Photo: Nicholas Korkos. All images courtesy of Prototype Festival

Opera, from the Latin "opus," is an Italian word that dates back as far as 1639 with the definition "a composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined." It's hailed as the highest of the "high art" forms: grandiose by design, impenetrable, and tragic in the most Greek sense of the word. Fittingly, it sees its decline with the rise of anti-classicism, Spotify, and short-form video. Borne in every millennial's distrust for mythology and moralizing is a not-so-thinly veiled skepticism for all things theatrical, perhaps most of all for the art form upheld primarily by ruling elites, Old World grandparents, and swooning (c'mon, everybody loves a good swoon). While the neoliberal flair for all things "inclusive" and ahistorical is at a global fever pitch, opera is literally dying.

One plucky upstart, however, is bringing opera out of the grotto and back into the ears and eyes of the evening adventurer. It may not be the return of the Bayreuth Festival, but at the very least, Prototype Festival has the potential to do for contralto connoisseurs what small-batch vinyl presses did for audiophiles.

Case in point: on a balmy Friday night, I took a cab to NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to catch the festival's New York premiere of an opera adaptation of a Lars von Trier film. Sex and sadism? Check. Full nudity (men and women) and ambiguously addressed mental illness? Double-check. Sure, spirit fingers and on-the-nose reprises were there, too, but Missy Mazzoli's stark Breaking the Waves, with its libretto by Royce Vavrek, makes a strong case for the artisanal revival of the medium—provided you don't let its theatrical conventions get to you. 

Photo: Nicholas Korkos

Von Trier's 1996 film tells the very Joan of Arc story of Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a Calvinist virgin who gives herself—quite literally—to her husband's transitive sexual compulsions following an oil rig disaster that leaves him paralyzed from the neck down. In Mazzoli's adaptation, Bess is played by soprano Kiera Duffy, who here gives a performance as intimate and unforgettable as Watson's, respective to their mediums. Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), played by a debonair John Moore, is given less importance here than in the film, causing the New York Times' Zachary Woolfe to propose that "A more radical operatic rethinking of the film could have been scored for solo soprano and chorus alone." While audacious, he isn't entirely out-there; one wonders what one of its more- "musical theater" moments might do—Bess, for example, clutching her hands to her chest, singing out to the audience, "I love him!"—if the object of her affection were offstage. 

Photo: Dominic Mercier

Breaking the Waves shines at its most unconventional, like when its chorus of Calvinist worshippers dresses down to assume the roles of Bess' many suitors, then dresses back up to become her denouncers. It really does get into visceral von Trier territory, particularly in the hardly-simulated sex scenes, evoking a pathos for Bess that opera audiences may have felt for Madame Butterfly a half-score and about a hundred years before Nymphomaniac. At times it's super-literal, but Duffy's fearlessness, Eve Gigliotti's dedication to the part of Dodo (Bess's only friend and confidante), James Darrah's Beckettian staging, Mazzoli's black metal album outro-esque score, and the story—this is the guy who wrote Antichrist we're talking about—all lend something formally exciting to the show, and to the Prototype Festival as a whole. 

Photo: Nicholas Korkos

Granted, it could have been more extreme, but in telling a story that pushes the tension between traditionalism and modern living to its most heartbreaking points, Mazzoli and Co. find a balance that satisfies in the same way von Trier leaves his audience's collective jaws on the floor. It's an experience at the theater as entertaining as any modern movie, an interesting counterpoint for fans of the original, and an impressive debut amidst a festival dedicated expressly to expanding the boundaries of opera as we know it. In short, it's a sharp, cold breath in a room that could surely use the air. 

Photo: Dominic Mercier

Photo: Nicholas Korkos

Photo: Nicholas Korkos

Breaking the Waves made its New York premiere January 6, 7, and 9 at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Prototype Festival. Click here for more information. 


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Performance Art
Lars von Trier
Breaking the Waves
Prototype Festival