Composer Missy Mazzoli is at the top of her game. Having just premiered her third opera, Proving Up, to wide acclaim, Mazzoli was recently commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera; one of two women ever commissioned by the Met in its 138-year history. She is currently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is on the faculty of the Mannes School of Music, and is the founder of Luna Lab, a mentoring program for teenage female composers. Proving Up provided the backdrop for this conversation about belief, delusional thinking, and the haunting and uniquely appealing soundscapes Mazzoli fashions.
Anthony Hawley (Rail): One of the notes I took watching Proving Up was: “The death of the American dream was alive and well.” How have we evolved as Americans? Could you talk a little bit about the American dream, Proving Up, and why you felt like you had to do this now?
Missy Mazzoli: I don't know that our idea of the American dream has evolved at all. Because it's an idea that you aim to be above whatever it is that has been allotted to you at birth. So in that sense, it's the exact same thing as the homesteaders were feeling—it's a dream. It's just the myth that we tell ourselves as Americans that it's not all bad. I think that there's something really beautiful about that. I think that I benefited from the legacy and history of the American dream and that when I was growing up my parents firmly believed in [it]. We were solidly working-class Pennsylvanians in a small town, but they said, you can do whatever you want. You're the only limit to yourself. And I was like, I'm going to move to New York and be a musician, to their dismay, (laughs) but that was just a given that no one was going to tell me not to do that. The world was going to keep improving. I was going to make more money than my parents; all these things that we inherit from being the children of Baby Boomers. But for most people that's not the reality at all and you can dream all you want and your circumstances will take you down. Fate will take you down. Politics and the reality of capitalism will take you down. But we never talked about that. It’s very un-American to talk against the American dream.
Rail: I was struck by how long we've been in the business of paper trails and documentation and red tape. The other side of the American dream is a series of checkpoints and tariffs, which is maybe un-American in terms of the “dream.”
Mazzoli: Well, even in terms of the Homestead Act [of Proving Up], there is an exploitative side. These homesteaders were not given the best land; they were set up to fail. So even at one of the earliest phases of the idea of the U.S. as a thing, America was already exploiting the dreams of the less fortunate. That's why there were all these songs promoting westward expansion. We sang one of them in the beginning [of the opera]. It was my melody, but the words are verbatim from a song that was written in 1848 to promote westward expansion. I found this song “Uncle Sam's Farm.” The chorus is: “Come along, come along, make no delay / Come from every nation, come from every way / Our land is broad enough—don’t be alarmed, / For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.” Then there’s a line “Remember, that Uncle Sam is not a fool / For the people do the voting, and the children go to school.” It’s promoting this fantasy that everything works, so just join the system and everything will be okay.
Rail: Along those lines, could we talk about that moment when [a character] sings “Quick think of a hymn”—it's so poignant. Then the Sodbuster just comes in and shatters it all. Belief is such an intense topic in this opera because it’s all about the stories we tell ourselves.
Mazzoli: Musically, he says, “quick think of a hymn,” (sings) “a Bible verse,” and he's trying to pull the music out of the mud: (sings again) “Oh God you sent a heavy rain / Oh God, you sent a heavy rain” and then it just all collapses but he’s trying to resurrect the moment and it doesn't work. But belief, it's a huge topic. It’s all about your inner world not quite matching with the reality of your world outside. And that’s one of opera’s superpowers: it can tell multiple stories at the same time. You might be saying one thing, but the music may be communicating how you really feel, like maybe you're in church and you're singing your heart out, but then the music reflects doubt. Maybe you're lying to someone on stage and then the music reflects a sort of boldness of vision. Belief is a big part of that and certainly the presence of the church and references to God—I always find a way to work them into operas because it's such a big palette. Actually all my operas have had some church songs in them. I grew up going not going to church but I would beg my mom to take me to church sometimes because it was like ritual and theater, right? It was touching into something beyond the reality of life.
Rail: Do you think we need that?
Mazzoli: I would say we all do. I think people find it in a million different fascinating ways. It's so interesting to me how people find that mystery in their life when maybe they lead lives that on the surface have no mystery or only a little mystery, but people have affairs or …really like fantasy football. I don't know. It's this sort of touching into the unknown.
Rail: The West is its own thing that way. And there’s a very masculine American dream that’s part of this mythology.
Mazzoli: Right, and Ma was really inspired by a lot of the women in my family who don’t have a voice; the man is always making the decisions. This isn’t true in my immediate family, but more generally, this blustery man is always making all the decisions, and you just have to shut up. Ma finds power in constant domestic chores—she’s always working—and I had this idea that maybe she could be constantly chopping wood in the background (laughs). Like she's just always maintaining order in that way to compensate. It wasn’t her choice to go out West. She did not have a say in it. She doesn't have a say.
Rail: This past summer I got to hear Sinfonia: (for Orbiting Spheres) and was mesmerized by the melodica. In Proving Up, I was taken with the guitars used as percussion, not to mention the harmonica. You seem to want to introduce something new to the sound world each time.
Mazzoli: I think my biggest fear is repeating myself. So I try to set up circumstances where I'm forced to do something different every time. In Proving Up it was like I'm going to have these seven guitars hanging up and the harpsichord. It’s automatically going to be different from everything I've ever written just because of those elements. In Sinfonia it was having the organ, melodica, and harmonicas. So I try to do that even if, just formally, I’m going to create a piece in the shape of a spiral, or a piece in the shape of going off a cliff at the end in the last three minutes.
Rail: Do you set that up at the beginning or does it just happen?
Mazzoli: I’m very formal. I need to be able to picture the whole thing before I start writing it, especially with a ten-minute orchestra piece.
Rail: With the guitars, the homesteaders could have actually had guitars, as you have said. What helps you set something like this up?
Mazzoli: I’m really interested in nostalgia and sounds that are not virtuosic, but that are set up in a virtuosic setting. With the guitars, most people know what it's like to hear just the open strings of a guitar strummed. We’ve all picked up a guitar and done that even if we don't know how to play anything. Or blowing into a harmonica. We all know what that sounds like. But when you put it in the context of a professional orchestra and opera it takes on something really personal, a nostalgic feeling, and it's almost uncanny. That’s what keeps the music from being overly academic. All the individual elements are very simple and all the musical elements are very simple, but they're combined in a way that I hope is very fresh.
Rail: Is there any more you want to say about Proving Up? Or more about the American dream or how it relates to now?
Mazzoli: I started it in October 2016. So it very quickly became about fake news and the idea of being misled.
You could look at the Sodbuster as a Trump-figure [or] that he could be all of us—all of our dark sides. I feel like Americans are committed to the American dream beyond any sense of reality and work. Even if it exists in a brutal corrupted state, we will go along with that. Even if we have to kill people, we’re all implicated in this and are so committed to it at any cost.
Rail: So the Sodbuster is in all of us?
Rail: There’s this almost maniacal need to pursue the American dream.
Mazzoli: And this is why I wanted to have the opera end with more questions than answers. Is it still the American dream if it's in this brutal corrupted thing? The Sodbuster is more committed to the American dream that anyone else right?
But he's a maniac; he's a murderer. And so, at what point do we cross the line? At what point does it become not ok? When we did it in Omaha, I remember someone at the Q&A revealing that they were descendants of homesteaders. But he said but this isn't how it happens; the American dream works because I'm here as a descendant. But a large number of homesteads failed and those people generally do not have descendants who still live in Nebraska. So this idea to tell the story of someone who's not the winner was much more interesting to me because so many of these stories are told by the winners and written by the winners. That's an opportunity that this opera provided.