Composer Missy Mazzoli comes to Aspen with ‘Proving Up’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Proving Up’
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Tuesday, July 30, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $40
Tickets: Aspen Music Festival box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
Composer Missy Mazzoli has played rock clubs and classical concert halls, blazed a trail as an innovative and hip composer for 21st-century opera, and last year became the first female composer commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.
In her first visit to Aspen, Mazzoli is bringing a concert performance of her 2018 opera, “Proving Up,” to Harris Concert Hall on Tuesday.
Based on a short story by Karen Russell and created with librettist Royce Vavrek, the opera is about a homesteading family on the prairie that is enduring a drought, struggling to survive and haunted by ghosts.
Opera, Mazzoli said in a recent phone interview, is an ideal medium to connect people with stories that matter.
“Opera is a place for big ideas,” she said. “It’s a place that has the scale and means to address a lot of complicated ideas. So in ‘Proving Up,’ we get at ideas about ambition, the nature of the American Dream and fate and these things that everyone is grappling with, especially now.”
Like generations of artists before her, Mazzoli, 38, wanted to tell a story about the American Dream, but she wanted to find a way to do it without being heavy-handed or preachy.
“This is about the American Dream but it’s told in a way that involves ghostly children and this creepy villain,” she said. “There’s humor and lightness in it, as well. So it struck me as a way to talk about these issues through a compelling family story.”
The opera was co-commissioned by the Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and Miller Theatre at Columbia University. It had productions in Washington, Omaha, Nebraska, and New York that transcended the often-closed world of opera and classical music, drawing attention in the mainstream of popular culture. Mazzoli — who has written music for the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” collaborated with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche on an instrumental album and was dubbed “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” by Time Out New York — is uninterested in the delineations between pop music and classical audiences.
“I write for everybody,” she said.
Staging “Proving Up” here in the American West, amid the landscape claimed by homesteaders, is profound for Mazzoli, who was moved by the audience in Omaha.
“It’s beautiful to bring this opera to people who are descendants of homesteaders,” she said.
But the history of the American West, like all history, was written by the winners and, in this case, by those who proved up and were successful settling the frontier.
“Most homesteaders were not successful and our opera is a story not told by the winners,” she said. “That aspect creates a delightful tension when presenting it in the American West.”
Mazzoli’s imaginative score incorporates the sounds of the West and of the homesteading era. As she was researching “Proving Up” with Vavrek, she studied the instruments and the songs of the time, incorporating the guitars, harmonicas and fiddles that settlers could bring west with them in their covered wagons. She also incorporated the fiddle tunes of the 19th century and the actual lyrics of songs written to promote westward expansion following the Homestead Act.
“Proving Up” opens with a piece — set to new music — that borrows the lyrics from the 1848 composition “Uncle Sam’s Farm,” which called for settlers to head west “from every nation” and promised “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.” Viewed through the political lens of the Trump era, it’s a chilling historical artifact.
“There is this incredible resonance with what’s happening today and this so-called immigration crisis,” Mazzoli said.
The composer also explored ways to create the sound of drought — using harpsichord, having strings players play with the wood of their bows, and calling on percussionists to play guitars with mallets to evoke the desperately desiccated soil.
Mazzoli, who also gave a master class to Aspen Music Fest students during her visit, is currently at work on an adaptation of the George Saunders novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” for the Met. She’s also writing an as-yet unannounced other opera, which she expects to premiere earlier.
“All of my work — even my purely instrumental work — is inspired by human beings and the messes that they get themselves into and the amazing ways that we do or don’t get ourselves out of them,” she said.
Operas take years to write and, if you’re lucky, live on for years after their premieres in different productions. So, above all, Mazzoli is always looking for stories she’s willing to live with long-term. The Russell story did that, as did Saunders’ novel about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son in the White House, and the Lars von Trier film “Breaking the Waves,” which inspired her breakthrough 2016 opera.
“The characters need to be interesting enough for me to still be able to find something in that story years after it premieres,” she said. “I look for complicated characters who do something unexpected, stories that tap into big ideas about the world.”