Opera in the Time of COVID: Missy Mazzoli, Famed Composer of ‘Breaking the Waves’ & ‘Proving Up’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Frances Marshall)

“Opera in the Times of COVID” is an interview series in collaboration with photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio. We talk to notable figures from around the opera world to get their perspective on how they feel these challenging times may change opera’s present and future.

Missy Mazzoli is one of the great opera composers of the modern era. While most know her for the phenomenal “Breaking the Waves,” Mazzoli has also composed several mini-operas as well as such works as “Proving Up” and “Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt.” Next up for her is the hotly anticipated “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which is based on the novel by George Saunders; the opera is set to have its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera.

In this interview, Mazzoli highlights her immersion in opera’s streaming options, what she’s reading, and how she’s quarantining with Royce Vavrek.

OperaWire: One of the major developments of this time are the emergence of streaming and connecting with fans and followers more directly via social media. How has this impacted your time in quarantine?

Missy Mazzoli: I feel more connected with followers, fans and friends right now, just because I have more time to answer requests and to connect.

OW: What is an outcome of it that you didn’t expect?

MM: I feel that I have more hours in the day to just listen to music, and we’re obviously in a very emotional, extreme time, so this has meant that I’m hearing music the way that I did when I was a child.  Everything feels very raw and personal, and I find that music is cutting through to my core in a way that I haven’t experienced in years.

OW: What do you enjoy most about this new development?

MM: I’m watching the Met Opera gala right now; it’s very uplifting and also fascinating to see singers making music in their homes with limited resources. While I love the grandeur and mystery of a staged show, I also love anything that brings opera down to earth, that humanizes it and reminds us that it can be part of our daily lives.

It would be great to be able to feel this connected to artists, to get a glimpse into their lives, even when we return to normal life. Of course we need to find a way to monetize all of this, but in general I don’t feel that the experience of live music is in danger of being replaced by streaming options.

OW: What are you most excited about doing once the quarantine officially comes to an end and we are allowed to resume a “normal” life?

I’m going to stay awake for a few days, I’m going to go dancing and watch the sunrise on the beach and talk to as many strangers as I can. Then I’m going to sleep for twelve hours, wake up and walk around New York with a big cup of takeout coffee. Then I’m going to do it all over again.

OW: Who have been the people you have relied on most to help you through these challenging times?

MM: I’m quarantining with my librettist Royce, who has been a constant source of fun and joy during these monotonous days. We’ve been riding the tumultuous waves of cancellations and postponements together.

OW: What activities do you miss the most?

MM: Seeing live music and theater!

OW: Most people in quarantine are actively engaging with the arts via either music, TV, film, reading, literature. Etc. What have you been watching or reading during this time?

MM: I’m watching the many streaming shows put out by the Met, LA Opera, the Royal Opera House, and Beth Morrison Projects. I’m reading Garth Greenwell, Sam Pink, Susan Sontag, and Carolyn Forche.  I’m also just staring into space a lot!