STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Opera Philadelphia launches their 2016-17 season in memorable fashion, with the world premiere of a company co-commission, “Breaking the Waves.”
Adapted from the 1996 Oscar-nominated film of the same name, the new three-act chamber opera was composed by Lansdale native Missy Mazzoli and stars soprano Kiera Duffy, who grew up in Springfield, Delaware County and Downingtown, and graduated from Bishop Shanahan High School.
Five performances are set for Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.
Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, “Breaking the Waves” tells the story of Bess McNeill — sung by Duffy — a religious woman whose marital vows are put to the test. After her husband, Jan (sung by baritone John Moore), becomes paralyzed in an off-shore oil rig accident, he encourages her to seek other lovers and return to his bedside to share the details. Emily Watson was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Bess in the film.
Like the film, the opera version of “Breaking the Waves” should be considered R-rated for explicit language and nudity. “It’s not sex and violence for the sake of being salacious,” said Mazzoli, a Brooklyn resident whose music has been performed all over the world by the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, pianist Emanuel Ax, the Detroit Symphony, the LA Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra, LA Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Milwaukee Opera Theatre. “Opera lyrically strikes me as PG (rated), as compared to what’s going on (on stage).”
Duffy commented: “This story can’t exist in a PG-13 way. It’s a heavy subject.”
The story “tackles huge ideas on … the nature of loyalty and faith and goodness,” Mazzoli said, relishing the opportunity to develop a female operatic character that doesn’t fall into the trap of sexist stereotypes. “I’m attracted to complicated characters — particularly female characters. They’re not wholly good, not wholly bad.”
To turn “Breaking the Waves” into a contemporary opera, Mazzoli teamed up with librettist Royce Vavrek, director James Darrah and conductor Steven Osgood. She spent three years working on the music. It’s the most recent work yielded by Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. Founded in 2011, the program’s commitment to producing a recent American work in 10 consecutive seasons is out to cultivate a new generation of homegrown opera composers.
The barrier-breaking works of opera you’re going to start hearing about in the 21st century, said Mazzoli, will not be sung in Italian and will not be “exclusively for people who study opera.”
Duffy, who has sung in productions of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Rossini’s “An Italian in Algiers” in her career, is finding it a refreshing change of pace to be actively collaborating with a composer. “As a singer of classical music, you’re so used to … singing the works of composers who are deceased. I wish I could get Mozart on the phone,” she laughed. “The biggest challenge doing this — we’re not trying to (interpret) the film on stage. What can opera explore that the film can’t explore?”
While Duffy is excited “to be doing such an awesome project in my hometown,” she’s also a mother of a 13-month-old son who still isn’t yet sleeping through the night.
“You have to go to some really dark places,” she said of getting inside Bess’ character.
“I feel good about it. I hope lots of people will come,” Duffy said.