Missy Mazzoli
Photo by Caroline Thompkins

Missy Mazzoli: “Struggle is part of the process”

Short Profile

Name: Missy Mazzoli
DOB: 27 October 1980
Place of birth: Lansdale, Pennsylvania, United States
Occupation: Opera composer, musician

Missy Mazzoli's new album Dark with Excessive Bright is available now via BIS Records.

Ms. Mazzoli, a recent article about your work as an opera composer called you an agent of change in this longstanding traditional art form. Is that a goal for you?

Absolutely. The tradition of classical music goes back for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s one in which women and people of color were excluded. So I think just by existing in this world as a woman, one is automatically a sort of agent of change or bringing in a new era. I remember graduating from college and thinking, “Oh, in 20 years, my gender won't be an issue, it won't even be something that people will bring up.” But here we are 20 years later, and things are just not changing fast enough for me. So absolutely, I think that it's in my nature to be a little bit provocative and to challenge people; to make these changes.

When you talk about challenging people, do you mean in terms of their perception of classical music?

Yes, I mean, it's part of my job as a composer who is alive in 2023 to make things that are new, and make things that don't sound like anything else. And I'm particularly interested in making music that is hard to categorize. I'm very influenced by Baroque music and traditional opera, but also indie rock and noise rock. And the older I get, and the more music I make, the harder it is for me to nail down exactly what the label of my work is, or should be or could be. I think that's great. I think that it's a sign that I'm synthesizing all these things in my environment, and making something that I hope is truly new.

“The goal can’t be to make art to satisfy everyone’s demands, because then you’re not really creating anything that is daring, or far reaching.”

You’re also bringing that energy to your operas, which have included stories of sex, violence, cults, and loneliness.

There has been great conversation generated from the work, for example with my recent opera The Listeners, which is an operatic thriller that we presented at the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo. It’s not traditional opera, but it's also not avant garde theater. My goal was to create something very entertaining; part of my job is to entertain people so there are funny moments, there’s a police chase scene, I threw everything in there. People have come up to me, sort of puzzled, and said, “Well, this feels like a Netflix series.” And I’m like, “Thank you!” (Laughs) There’s this old fashion tendency to reject things that are overtly popular or mainstream, but there's a piece of me that wants to be making things that are as dramatic and compelling as a Netflix series, or a great like spy thriller novel, or a documentary on a cult. I mean, these are the things that are compelling our imagination right now. And I think that opera has the chance to do the same thing!

The choreographer Alexander Ekman says that he’s even been booed when he shows an avant-garde dance piece, but the audience is expecting traditional ballet.

Oh, I've been booed. I wear it as a badge of honor! What you make is not for everyone. I don't think there's a single piece of art out there that is absolutely beloved by everyone. The goal can't be to make art to satisfy everyone's demands, because then you're not really creating anything that is daring, or far reaching. That said, I do think a lot about balancing what is familiar and what is surprising. Operas are evening-length experiences. I can bring people in with sounds, harmonies, and motifs that are sort of familiar, and then hit them in an unexpected way with something that is really unfamiliar, strange or surprising. That’s the fun of making longform work.

Has there ever been pushback from the grand institutions you’re working with?

Sure, there's always a little bit of pushback, but I think that’s great. If I were making work where everyone was like, “This looks great!” from the beginning then that I would not be doing my job of being someone who is creating work that provokes and forces the audience to ask questions. That's my biggest goal.

How do you get them on your side?

Well, I always try to get to the point where people are hearing the music and the words together before they make a judgement. For example, I have a workshop coming up for this piece, Lincoln in the Bardo, which I'm writing for the Met in New York. And there are a lot of really strange ideas in that work, but I feel like if I could just get everyone in the room and they can hear it sung, they'll kind of understand more of what I'm going for. I think it's very misleading to read the libretto for an opera and think that you can understand it. You have to hear the synthesis of these elements to really get what the opera is about.

You’re one of the first female composers to have a piece commissioned by the Met; how has it been working on this piece? Is it a lot of pressure inhabiting that role?

So far it's been really exciting. I mean, it was my childhood dream to write something for the Met. And I never even really let myself dream it because it seemed so unattainable. Now that it's happening, it's just a joy every time I get to walk into that building! The great thing about working on an opera is that you do have such a long time to work on these pieces so I'm sort of protected from the outside world within my process. There's a solid year and a half, when it's just me, literally at this desk where I'm sitting now, writing by myself. It shields me from any outside pressure of what people expect from this work. And by the time the audience is reacting to something I've done, I'm already on to the next thing.

“Breaking the Waves broke the world wide open for me. That experience gave me a lot of confidence because I realized that people were responding most passionately to the moments when I was really, truly being myself.”

When did you find that kind of confidence in your own work and your process? Apparently when you first started out, you felt like a bit of an imposter working with these grand institutions but coming from a working class background in rural Pennsylvania…

It took me over 20 years to let go of those fears! It wasn't really until I was in my late thirties that I felt completely like I was able to be my true self in these public spaces. I grew up in a working class environment and I'm a woman; those things makes you a little bit of an outsider in the rarefied circles of classical music. It wasn’t until my first big operatic success with Breaking the Waves in 2016 that kind of broke the world wide open for me. That experience gave me a lot of confidence to move forward and just be myself, because I realized that people were responding most passionately to the moments when I was really, truly being myself.

Does that mean you’re able to compose more freely and easily because you’re not being held back by fear?

The funny thing is, I used to think, “Oh, I'll get to this place where I'm no longer stuck and I’ll be able to write so easily.” But that just doesn't really happen. It should always be a little bit of a struggle if you're doing something new. I kind of welcome it and see it as a positive because it means that I'm pushing myself, that I’ve conditions that are challenging for me, which I enjoy.

You’ve also talked about how having a supportive community of peers and colleagues helps provide some relief in those moments of struggle.

Having a community like that is totally essential. I didn't have that for a really long time, but then when I found it, I wondered how I ever lived without it. I’ll call my friend who's also a composer, and say, “I don't remember how to write music!” And he's like,” I don't remember how either, let's get a drink!” (Laughs) It just makes you feel like there's nothing wrong with you, because that struggle is just part of the process.