Disability Takes Center Stage: Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Breaking The Waves’

By John Vandevert
(Photo Credit: James Glossop)

Disability is a tricky subject in opera. 

Oftentimes, it is chastised as something dirty or mysterious or just down right funny. But in truth, it’s rather serious and a complicated theme to get right. A new opera about the perils of mental illness, love, and genuine belief has tried to reframe this with exceptional results. 

Composed by Missy Mazzoli, known for her other operatic works like “The Listeners” (2022) and “Songs from the Uproar” (2012), her third opera “Breaking the Waves,” reinvented disabilities on the opera stage. With a libretto by Royce Vavrek, the opera premiered in 2016 at Opera Philadelphia with seemingly great results. With a powerful cast and a main heroine who does not let herself become a victim but rather a martyr, the opera is truly nothing like its contemporaries.

Let’s explore the inspiration behind the opera and the theme of disability in opera to try and understand why this opera seems to be a trailblazer.

Mazzoli’s Inspiration 

The opera is based on the eponymous 1996 film by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, featuring well-known English actress Emma Watson. The story unfolds in seven chapters with an epilogue documenting the final psychological break and killing of wife Bess, her absolution in the hospital after her attack, along with her faux burial at sea. The entire film can be understood as an allegory of the blurring devotion to love and the sacrifices therein and the equally taut sacrifices required by the religiously devout. A brief visitation of the movie’s plot helps underscore the story’s brilliance.

Bess McNeill, following the death of her brother, becomes increasingly psychologically sensitive. However, she ends up marrying oil rig worker Jan Nyman, a fervent non-believer and critique of the Calvinist church and its teachings. Bess is relatively juvenile in her beliefs and when she confesses, she ends up having chats with God using her own voice in the place of God. She clings to Jan and tries to please him any way she can, but finds it challenging to live without him while he’s at work. After finding out Jan has been injured, and Bess concludes it was God punishing her for her desire to have him home. Having no way to please Bess, Jan asks Bess to get a lover and attempts suicide, although failing.

Jan continues to fail in health and despite her sister-in-law Dodo telling her Bess can’t really do anything, Bess is convinced that if she gets a lover this can cure Jan. At first, it doesn’t work. But soon, Bess is walking the streets and finding men who sexually abuse her. Her church begins to find out and ultimately excommunicates her. Her village also becoming privy to her actions. Bess is considered to be psychologically in trouble and plans are made to keep her in a mental institution. 

Regardless, Bess is devout to Jan and goes to a ruined ship where sailors ultimately attack her. In the hospital, Bess is recovering but ultimately succumbs to her injuries. Her church considers her lost to hell but Dodo rebukes their judgment. Bess’ body is taken from her sealed coffin without others knowing and her coffin is buried at sea. Without knowing where her body is, church bells ring as Jan continues his life, now healed.

Disability in Opera

Although it’s easy to assume that disabilities are a relatively new theme to appear on the stage, its presence is a historic constant in the realm of opera. One only has to look at the myriad of stories about characters going mad with jealousy, grief, hatred, and so on, to understand just how common this theme is to the operatic world. Perhaps no greater examples exist than Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth” (1847), Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (1835), and Elvira’s mad scene in Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (1834).

However, both prior to and after the 19th century, disability has shaped opera in many different ways. For example, operas that deal with disability in the context of controversial terrorism, “The Death of Kinghoffer” (1991), of infertility “Der Schatzgräber and “La mandragola,” even of disability as an intrinsic connection to music itself “Music for the Living” (1983).

As one can imagine, many other works exist as well that deal with the gamut of expressions of disabilities. Research by the Music and Disability Interest Group of the organization called “Society for Music Theory” (SMT) has an ongoing database of expressions of disabilities in music. Some of the more recent examples demonstrate the growing representation of disabilities on the opera stage as not something to gawk at but something to understand and connect with on a human level.

In Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera “The Country of the Blind” (1997), H.G. Well’s eponymous story about a community of blind individuals is brought to life. Other notable examples include Lera Auerbach’s 2011 opera, “The Blind.” Audiences are blindfolded in order to sympathize with the feeling of the blind character’s helplessness on being stranded on an island. 

An even more recent opera dealing with the experiences of the disabled under the precarious conditions of contemporary United Kingdom was Toria Banks and Amble Skuse’s opera, “We Ask These Questions of Everybody” (2021). In this digital opera, created during COVID, the questions of what disabled stories can teach able bodied individuals is interrogated with clarity and tact.

But, this is where the momentum for disabled representation seems to have taken a slight turn. Since the early 2020s, little has been done by way of bringing disabled stories to the operatic stage. During the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the themes of psychological instability and various forms of disabilities were discussed by composers ranging from Jacopi Mellani to Giovanni Paisiello, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. 

But, as time has progressed there has been a shift away. In 2014, the company Graeae’s production of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weil’s “Threepenny Opera” featured a far more dignified expression of disability than previous operas had given the subject.

Perhaps there’s a switch occurring right now. But, as it stands there’s little to suggest it’ll happen soon.


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