The future for Missy Mazzoli’s third and newest opera about 19th-century Nebraskan homesteaders already looks nomadic. On January 19 the Washington National Opera will premiere Proving Up, which Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek adapted from a short story by Karen Russell of the same title. The new opera will be performed this weekend by six singers from the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Then, the opera will travel. In a white-walled gallery space, Nebraska’s Opera Omaha will mount the work in April. September will see Proving Up at Miller Theatre in New York City.
Recently, Mazzoli stepped out of rehearsal in Takoma Park, Maryland, to speak on the phone with National Sawdust Log. The conversation, which journeyed, perhaps inevitably, to the #MeToo movement, began with the work the 37-year-old has been crafting since the last Presidential election.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Your last two operas dealt with international fare. Song from the Uproar followed the life of a Swiss woman explorer. Breaking the Waves was set in the Scottish Highlands. Now, with Proving Up, you’re coming home. What drew you back to America for this piece?
MISSY MAZZOLI: Well, the first thing is that it was a result of the commission offer from Washington National Opera. They have a program called the American Opera Initiative, which is about American stories. And it brings up this interesting question: What makes an opera American? The impression I got from the company was that they wanted something that dealt with uniquely American themes. This was great for me because, since the recession 10 years ago, I had wanted to write a piece about the American Dream. But I didn’t want to do it in sort of a heavy-handed or obvious way.
Royce – my librettist Royce Vavrek – and I discovered Karen Russell’s writing, in particular this story “Proving Up.” And I thought, oh my God, this is a story about the American Dream and foreclosure and this obsession with land ownership and home ownership and proving oneself. This sort of rags-to-riches mythology that so much of our country is built on. But it did it in a way that was very personal. It dealt with this homesteader family, and it was so surreal and strange. I think that’s the kind of thing that works for me on the operatic stage.
When did this project begin? It feels very timely.
I got the commission a couple years ago, but I didn’t start writing until October of 2016. This was right before the election. But the opera really changed direction after the last election because the conversation in America around the American Dream really shifted. The conversation in the media after the election brought the opera into focus for me.
I try to build my operas around questions rather than answers. To me, that’s much more interesting. The questions that were going around in my mind about the American Dream were: Could a hard-working American do everything right and still fail, still succumb to fate? In a country where success is earned – or we have this illusion that all success is earned – is failure then also earned?
This taps into this national conversation about what is a right and what is a privilege. This idea that any success you have was the result of your hard work, not your fortunate circumstance. And entitlement. And the role of family money in success. You know, poor people in America used to be called “unfortunates.” It was sort of a way of recognizing that fate and fortune and luck played a part in their destiny. Now we don’t call them that any more. Now it’s much more about this idea that people deserve it.
Do we as Americans need this idea of the American Dream to continue even in this sort of brutal, corrupted stated that it’s in? And why do we still need that? Certainly I think Trump represents the most brutal, horrific version of someone who… There’s an illusion that he has gone through and achieved the American Dream, but it’s all false. It’s all corrupt. There’s a character in the opera who is not modeled on Trump, but I think there is some resonance there with him.
As a reader and a listener, one can sense some inherent connection between your work and Karen Russell’s. You’re both artists in your first wave of maturity. You two are creating pieces that feel ripe and dazzling. What is it about her writing that resonated with you?
There’s a sort of… I don’t know if she would call it this, but to me it’s a sort of magical realism. The stories take place in a more-or-less realistic world, but then all these strange things happen that push the edges of reality. And I think opera is so surreal. When you have everyone singing their thoughts, from the beginning it’s a very surreal genre. I’d rather embrace that and emphasize that onstage rather than try to normalize the experience.
Also, her writing inspired me musically. There were all these phrases in her descriptions of characters that gave me a lot of musical ideas. It’s so evocative. Like, I made the decision to add a harpsichord because I was trying to think of what is the driest instrument in the orchestra? And how can I reflect this draught that people are living through just through an instrument? And I was like, oh, the harpsichord! That’s the driest, boniest thing I can imagine. That all comes out of her writing.
What other orchestration choices or new ideas do you experiment with in this piece?
There are a bunch of strange things. So, there are eight acoustic guitars in the piece, seven of which are played by the percussionist who hits them with sticks and mallets. They’re all tuned to different chords. This was again part of the sound of dryness—this kind of constant, rattling dryness. But I also wanted to use instruments that could have actually been carried across the prairie by this homesteading family.
There are also six harmonicas in the piece. Again, they were a sort of folky, Americana instrument from that time. There was also something really creepy about them.
Anne Midgette just published a great piece about you in the Washington Post. In her lede, she says that you are considered the black sheep of your family—which is, obviously, hilarious. Being from a non-musical family, how did you find your way to classical music in the first place?
Well, we had a piano in my house. My parents got at like a flea market. I played it all the time. When I was seven I started taking lessons, and I just immediately responded to it in this way that was really obsessive. And I responded to classical music in a way that was very intense. I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. It was weird because, like, my parents would take me to the Philadelphia Orchestra sometimes, but I was not immersed in music really at all. But everything I got my hands on I loved just so intensely. I think not having constant access to it made me love it even more because it was this special rare thing.
Were you the kind of kid who just practiced of her own accord?
Oh, yeah. And I wrote. I started writing when I was like ten. I decided to be a composer when I was ten. I don’t think I knew that it was a really a career, but I was like, I like Beethoven. I want to be like Beethoven. I don’t think I could think clearly about what it meant to be a composer, and I didn’t meet a living composer until I was in college.
I really don’t know where it came from, but I knew that I had to do something in the arts and something in music.
These last few years, your star has taken a meteoric rise. What’s different now that you are, as Anne Midgette put it, an “it” girl?
[Laughs] She also called me a sacred cow, which was pretty funny.
I’m really happy. All of my dreams are coming true in a way. It’s still incredibly hard, but it’s hard in different ways. I still feel the stress of money, and more even than that, I feel the stress of time. It’s like birthing these things into existence. I still have to take care of them and make sure that they’re being taken care of. A huge amount of my time is spent managing projects I’ve already completed. So I don’t have… I’m struggling to find the balance of creative work with like business work, just managing these massive things.
I’m happy that I’m in position where I’m secure enough that I can give back. I’ve started this organization called Luna Lab, which is a nonprofit for female composers. It feels really good to be able to have the energy and the wherewithal to do that.
I can’t talk to any woman right now and not ask the obvious: What has your experience been in your profession as a woman?
So much of what women experience in other fields translates to what I experience in classical music. I find the whole #MeToo movement very empowering. Reading something like Lean In a couple years ago also really clarified things for me. I was like, oh, that’s exactly what I experience.
I feel like we’re making progress, but it’s still too slow in my opinion. Way too slow. I’m shocked that we’re still at this place. I thought when I started my undergrad that by the time I got to be 37 years old, things would have dramatically changed. I just assumed that that would have happened. And it didn’t. So now I think that maybe there’s a potential for the change that I’ve wanted for the last 17 years.
I also feel pissed off that I had to wait until I was 37 to really feel like I had agency, that I was able to say something about what’s going on. I think that the numbers, the statistics of women in classical music… those alone, apart from any salacious horrible story of abuse or harassment, just the statistics alone are cause for a revolution. They’re horrible. They’re absolutely horrible. People are always asking me, oh, what have you experienced? What horrible things have happened to you? And I’m like, the statistics are the horrible thing. You look at the fact that the Met has only performed two works by a woman—that is horrible for me. That’s a terrible thing to grow up under, trying to make a career in opera. It makes me mad every day that they don’t do anything about it.
I think these stories need to come out, and they’re a great first step, but there still has to be major shifts in the culture. I see the same things over and over again. I see men getting opportunities based on their potential, yet women have to prove themselves ten times to be given one small opportunity. That is a real obstacle for women in opera. That’s changing slowly but again not fast enough.
The big orchestras and opera companies seem to have been saying for years, we’re just trying to figure out how to stay in business; we really can’t deal with these gender parity issues right now. But out where you are on the alternative end of classical music, we see much more equitable representation. And we also often find out there music that feels more relevant. What is it about classical music outside the mainstream that makes it so much more in step with now?
You’re not beholden to a massive institution that has a board. And I think a lot of these institutions have a misunderstanding of what it means to take a risk. You’re right: On the one hand, they grumble about going out of business. And then they describe the hiring of women and people of color as a risk. I’m just so offended by that kind of language. And the reality is the opposite. I’ve sold out every opera I’ve ever put on the stage. Every night. How am I a risk? Even if you only care about money and numbers, then I am the safest thing for you to put on your stage. The reality of what audiences want is… I think these institutions have a misunderstanding. They think people want the same thing over and over, when actually even younger audiences, which is like the golden… cow [laughs] of what everyone’s trying to attract, they want to see themselves reflected in the creators. They want diversity onstage.
It’s a weird thing to look at women I admire, like Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson. These are women who have radically different, unconventional paths. And I can see totally why they did that. Why would you try to normalize yourself in a world that doesn’t want you? And then on the back end, people like Meredith Monk are not described as composers. They’re like, oh well she’s something else. You know? But no, she’s actually a brilliant composer who deserves to be right up there with Philip Glass and John Adams as the forerunner of minimalism. It’s kind of this endless cycle of being outside of the cycle.
At some point, the market has got to speak. Right? The big old institutions have got to understand that their contemporary audiences want to see and hear equality. As these conversations have shifted and as your own reputation has expanded, have you begun getting calls from any unexpected places?
Not as many as people seem to think. Everyone’s like, oh, your phone must be ringing off the hook. I’m like, not really. We’re slow. It’s a slow world. It’s not like you have one good review and then all of a sudden you have ten thousand commissions. But… I have been surprised. I’ve received some calls from European institutions. Especially as an American, especially as an American woman, I was like, I will never work in those places. But there’s a shift there too, both stylistically and in that they’re becoming more open and in terms of diversity of gender. So we’ll see. We’ll see how it all pans out.
The Washington National Opera will present Proving Up at the Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center, on Jan. 19 at 7:30pm and Jan. 21 at 2pm; kennedy-center.org
Samantha London, who holds two degrees in piano performance, is a Baltimore-based arts journalist. She received the Audience Award at the inaugural Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in 2012. Her work has been published by Atlas Obscura, CSO Sounds & Stories, and Oxford University Press.