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Missy Mazzoli is having a moment

The composer’s opera ‘Proving Up,’ plus two symphonic works, are on tap this weekend

Missy MazzoliCaroline Tompkins

There’s something like a mini-festival of Missy Mazzoli’s music taking place in Boston this weekend. Her third opera, “Proving Up,” is being staged during this year’s Fringe Festival at Boston University, Mazzoli’s undergraduate alma mater. Almost simultaneously with the opera’s Saturday performance, local orchestras will play two of her symphonic works: “These Worlds In Us” (Boston Conservatory Orchestra) and “Violent, Violent Sea” (Brookline Symphony Orchestra).

The convergence wasn’t planned — a case, instead, of three local performing organizations programming the same composer. But it is a sign of the extent to which Mazzoli has established herself as a composer with a deeply original voice; it’s also evidence of the breadth of the audience that wants to hear her music.


“Missy’s impact on the modern classical world is profound,” Matthew Marist, chair of instrumental studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, wrote in an email. “Her music speaks to the conditions in which we are living today, and, I believe, resonates in a special way with younger generations.” He described “These Worlds In Us” as “a hauntingly beautiful work that easily finds [a] home on any contemporary classical orchestral program.”

Perhaps the most telling indication of Mazzoli’s prominence is that the composer herself had no idea any of this was happening. “I’m sometimes the last to know,” she said, and laughed, during a recent phone interview from her home in Brooklyn. The fact that her music has now taken on a life of its own is exhilarating, of course, even if her separation from events like these also induces a bit of melancholy.

“My dream was always to create something that could sort of function without me being there every second and willing everything into existence, as you have to when you’re a young artist,” said Mazzoli, who was recently named Musical America’s composer of the year. “So I’m thrilled that that’s happened, but there’s a little bit of sadness, or just wishing to be there, to connect with people as they’re hearing it.”


Connecting with audiences is the reason Mazzoli became a composer in the first place. “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” she wrote in a blog post for NewMusicBox. And she’s crafted a musical language to achieve just that: It bears plenty of tonal references without being explicitly tonal, and it has both openness and a slightly mysterious tinge. You can hear that combination in “A Thousand Tongues,” an eerie vocal work newly recorded by mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo. It’s also there in “Vespers for a New Dark Age,” a fuzzed-out secular rethinking of the traditional Vespers service that Mazzoli wrote for her band Victoire, Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche, and keyboardist Lorna Dune.

But it is as an opera composer — she’s currently working on an operatic adaptation of George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” for the Metropolitan Opera — that she’s made her biggest impact. When she was in high school, Mazzoli dreamed of creating massive theater pieces for audiences to be immersed in. But she credits Opera Philadelphia and producer Beth Morrison, who jointly commissioned her second opera, “Breaking the Waves” (based on Lars von Trier’s harrowing 1996 film), as well as her librettist, Royce Vavrek, for helping her realize that impulse in the opera world.


“When I started working with them, I had this feeling that it was like coming home,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve always been — this is what I’m supposed to do.’ And it occurred to me that I’ve been telling stories through my music since I was a little kid, and they all have this narrative impulse. So that impulse was always in me, but it took Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison to really solidify my path.”

“Proving Up,” which followed “Breaking the Waves,” is based on Karen Russell’s story of a poor 19th-century Midwestern family desperate to own the deed to their land. The youngest son sets out on a quest for a glass window, a legal requirement for land ownership under the Homestead Act. He finds himself traveling through an eerie, haunted landscape, where ghosts and other threatening figures disrupt his path. The ending is both ambiguous and tragic. It’s a harrowing piece, as much for the action that happens onstage as for its unspoken yet trenchant commentary about contemporary American society.

“My goal was to express the sort of dual nature of the American dream,” she explained. “This sort of inspiring idea that anyone can do whatever they want, no matter where they come from, and the harsh reality that that isn’t true, and we do not live in a society that actually supports that. That myth endures so strongly, despite all the evidence to the contrary.”

A different but no less authentic side of Mazzoli’s compositional voice is present in “These Worlds In Us.” She wrote the piece in her mid-20s, when she was finishing graduate school at Yale and felt intense unease about the prospect of making a career in music. Perhaps sensing her anxiety, Mazzoli’s father began to talk about his experience as a soldier in Vietnam. The landscape of those conversations comes through in the audible sense of yearning and unease in the music’s restless churn.


“I was broken open emotionally,” Mazzoli says of that time. “And we had a beautiful time of opening up to each other. I think that in the emotional world of that piece you hear the sort of melancholy and the fear and the sadness, as well as this liberated exuberance — there’s a sort of relief in the comfort of family and the comfort of survival and having gone through something very difficult.”

It’s not a programmatic work, she added. But “if people, 15 years later, can taste a little bit of that, can feel that, then I’ll be ecstatic.”

PROVING UP Opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek. Presented by the Boston University Fringe Festival. At: Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre, Oct. 22-24. Tickets: $15.

Boston Conservatory Orchestra At: St. Cecilia Parish, Oct. 23, 8 p.m. Tickets: $15.

Brookline Symphony Orchestra At: All Saints Parish, Brookline, Oct. 23, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-15.

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger


David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.