Q & A: Soprano Sydney Mancasola On ‘Breaking The Waves’ & Its European Premiere In Edinburgh

By Francisco Salazar

When “Breaking the Waves” made its world premiere in  2016 at Opera Philadelphia, it became a critical darling and won the inaugural Best New Opera Award from the Music Critics Association of North America. The work was also shortlisted for “Best World Premiere” Prize at the International Opera Awards. Since then, this opera has been performed at the Prototype Festival and will make its European premiere at the Edinburgh Festival this week.

The opera will be headlined by soprano Sydney Mancasola, a rising star who was a Grand Finals winner of the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a winner of the 2016 Mabel Dorn Reeder Foundation Prize from Opera Theatre of St Louis. She has since performed with some of the most prestigious U.S. houses including the Des Moines Metro Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Palm Beach Opera, and Florida Grand Opera, among many others.

Mancasola spoke with OperaWire  about the challenge of performing the acclaimed opera by Missy Mazzoli and preparing for the new work.

OperaWire: How did you get involved with this new Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures co-production of “Breaking the Waves,” which will be performed at the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival?

Sydney Mancasola: I was initially put forward for the role of Bess a few years ago, and after singing for some of the producers, and our brilliant director Tom Morris, I was lucky enough to land the project.

Tom and I did a working session to see if he responded to me as a performer, and we seemed to have a creative connection, so I’m so glad that we are getting to explore that further in rehearsals for “Breaking the Waves.”

I will admit that it’s a role that I had to carefully consider whether I wanted to take on. I wasn’t surprised to learn recently that several actors turned down the role of Bess for the film, being daunted by the extremes of it.

OW: Did you see the opera when it was given its world premiere in 2016 and/or how did you first become familiar with the opera?

SM: Ironically, in 2016 I had just moved away from Philadelphia the same year that “Breaking the Waves” had its premiere at Opera Philadelphia. I got my training at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia but had just moved to Berlin. I did not, however, miss the buzz that the premiere generated. I remember hearing many amazing tales of the production, mostly from audience members who had been profoundly moved by the opera.

OW: The opera is based on the 1996 Academy Award-nominated film by Lars von Trier. Have you seen the movie and if so has that impacted the way you see the work or influenced you in any way?

SM: I saw the von Trier before I auditioned for Bess and again shortly before we began rehearsals. I can’t imagine having taken on the project without knowing the source material, but at the same time, I feel strongly that the opera tells the story through an entirely different lens. I am hoping that we will be able to retain an element of the cinematic realism in our telling because that’s not something you see on the operatic stage very often, but the music transports the piece and allows us to depart from the intentionally ambiguous nature of the film.

OW: How have you gone about preparing for a relatively new role like this?

SM: Bess is a behemoth undertaking and I am both daunted by and absolutely loving sinking my teeth into the challenge equally. I’ve done my fair share of centric opera heroines – Manon, Traviata, the Hoffmann Heroines, etc. – so I know what it’s like to be at the axis of a piece, but this is at a completely different level and that fact was not lost on me as I began to learn the role.

The pressure that accompanies performing a piece that is written so much from one character’s point of view is immense but also thrilling. Fortunately, I am surrounded by a bunch of brilliant creatives who have been so instrumental in shaping this role, including the composer Missy Mazzoli, so I am wonderfully supported in my pursuit.

OW: Tell us a bit more about the character of Bess McNeill and how you see her actions in the work? What are you interested in exploring with her?

SM: Based on the unfathomable trials that Bess endures throughout the piece, it would be very easy to mistake her for a woman who is victimized. I was from the beginning, very
disinterested in the idea of playing a victimized woman, and fortunately, it was not difficult to find the ways that this character’s agency is present in almost every step she takes on the twisted path she is walking.

Bess is a person who experiences emotions at extremes and at a profound depth. She has an unwavering faith, and the capacity to love unconditionally within a society where doing so is against the norm. She has an inherent wildness that appealed to me immediately, and I adore that in the face of adversity, and without the support of anyone in her life, she stays completely true to herself. This is a woman who absolutely deserves to have an opera written about her!

OW:  Tell me about working with your fellow cast members and if you have ever worked with any of the singers? What are you most looking forward to in this new collaboration?

SM: First of all, the cast is fire. Across the board. They are helping me to raise my game every day in rehearsal, which is so important. They also just happen to be really excellent people as well which makes coming in to tackle difficult subject matter each morning a lot easier.

Most of the cast are new collaborations for me, with the exception of Duncan Rock in the role of Jan, my husband. Duncan and I had the pleasure of performing “The Magic Flute” together last season at the Metropolitan Opera. He is also a friend of mine, which means we have an added level of trust that has proved really helpful with the amount of physical intimacy that our roles require. I’ve really enjoyed sharing creatively with each of my cast members, and also with our team of directors and the excellent music staff.

OW: Is this your first collaboration with Missy Mazzoli?

SM: Yes, it is. Collaborating with Missy Mazzoli directly has been particularly special, since it’s so rare that you get to have that kind of direct channel with an opera’s composer.  It’s a complete luxury, and one we aren’t taking for granted for a moment. She has been amazingly generous, and I’m fairly bowled over by her in general.

OW: How do you feel about performing at the Edinburgh International Festival and what do you think a festival setting gives that a regular opera house does not?

SM: I am more excited than I can express to be performing at the Edinburgh International Festival. I’ve always dreamed of attending and now I actually get to be a part of it! It’s madness. I always love performing at festivals, because you get a different kind of audience. The energy of the collective creativity really does resonate throughout a festival and makes for a really special performance opportunity, both for the performers and the audience.

10. What do you hope audiences will take away from the opera when they see it in August?

SM: Without giving too much away, Bess is a woman who gets turned away from her community at the time in her life when she most needs them.  Turning our backs on people when they are most needy of love and acceptance, is a pattern that is very pervasive in our world today, and this story can help remind us to hold those who are challenging our beliefs even closer when they need compassion and understanding. The relevance of this story couldn’t be more palpable than it is today.

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