Reimagining ‘Breaking the Waves’

By Steve Dow

The creators of this opera on how it adds new depths and agency to von Trier’s 1996 film

Sydney Mancasola (Bess) and Duncan Rock (Jan) in Breaking the Waves. Photograph by James Glossop

Newly married, deeply religious Bess McNeil’s life seems a dire study in misogynistic oppression. Religion and medicine are means for men to control her body and mind. In an isolated Calvinist community on the Scottish Isle of Skye in the early 1970s, her husband, Jan, becomes paralysed and unable to have intercourse, so he bids his wife have sex with other men, a commandment she reluctantly carries out as though her spouse is a personification of God on Earth.

In private moments, childlike Bess carries on conversations alone, modulating her voice in different registers as though God or Jan is answering her back. Her sister, who seems the only one looking out for her welfare, acknowledges that Bess is “not right in the ’ed”. A male doctor, who has sex with Bess, moves to section her under mental health provisions, while the pious elders would ultimately consign her to hell for her promiscuity.

Forever treated as though she doesn’t belong, a council of elders ask Bess if she can think of anything of value outsiders have brought to their community. Their unfathomable ways of controlling women are predicated on no crime, but simply motivated by fear of her potential individual autonomy. Beautiful music, she tells this otherwise silent, judgemental community. In Lars von Trier’s classic 1996 film Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson gives a virtuosic performance as Bess, and while her lack of agency against the forces of church, community and state arrayed against her because of a perceived mental vulnerability is devastating, von Trier’s stated aim was to create a study of human goodness: that of Bess and, arguably, of her husband, in so far as he suggests that she continue to have a sex life.

When Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based librettist Royce Vavrek suggested to fellow Brooklyn-based American composer Missy Mazzoli that they turn Breaking the Waves into an opera, Mazzoli was reluctant. What more could they add, she asked. But she re-watched the film, noting that, apart from bursts of rock numbers interspersed between chapters, the movie had no soundtrack. Music could become the subtext of the characters on stage.

“Upon watching it a second, third and fourth time, I realised just how operatic that film is,” Mazzoli says via Skype from Brooklyn. “You have this amazing love story; you have this really extreme, impossible situation. You have the presence of the church, and the stern mother too. All these things make for great drama. Having a blank canvas in terms of musical language set me free to imagine a musical world for these characters that no one had invented yet.”

The opera, which will be performed at Adelaide Festival on March 13 and 15, with soprano Sydney Mancasola as Bess, pushes Bess into a Madonna–whore binary like many past operatic heroines – “You can’t win because you’re either a slut or a prude,” as Mazzoli puts it – but also challenges the idea that Bess entirely lacks agency. In Bess’s act one aria, reprised in act three, she sings: “My body is a map.” Vavrek, speaking via Skype from Prague, says of the lyric: “In a way, it really does feel that she’s making choices based on her own motivations. Bess is saying, ‘My body is a map for my love of this man.’”

Breaking the Waves “encourages a conversation about the #MeToo era”, says Vavrek. “There was one tweet I saw, ‘Was that a #MeToo opera?’ I don’t know I would necessarily go as far as saying that, but it hopefully is something worth discussing in this current climate and what it means. It’s true, there have been a lot of operas that sacrifice their women for men. There is redemption for Bess in this piece, and I feel like she has a lot of agency.

“A lot of critical consensus, in America especially, was that the preconceptions of misogyny were driven away in our adaptation. They felt through Bess singing, and through this exploring curve through the opera that we really sapped it of its presumed misogyny. I do not think that Lars von Trier is a misogynist; I think that he might be a little misanthropic,” Vavrek laughs. “There’s a beautiful article Uma Thurman wrote after she made [von Trier’s 2013 film] Nymphomaniac, where she asked how can a man who has created so many dynamic roles for women be a misogynist? He seems to adore women in many ways.”

Is it a stretch to say that Breaking the Waves is a feminist opera? “I think that’s one of the preoccupations of the film and the opera,” says Mazzoli, “this idea of creating a character who definitely has agency and who is carving out her own moral path separate from the one prescribed by the people around her. She has no choice but to carve out her own destiny, so she’s making choices every step of the way.

“I don’t think the central theme of the film or the opera is a feminist one, though. We’re dealing with themes of goodness and what does it mean to be a good person. What is the nature of loyalty? What is the nature of faith? These are issues women have to deal with more than men, and in more complex ways than men. But I think it’s reductive to say that it’s a feminist piece.”

Soon after Opera Philadelphia commissioned Breaking the Waves in 2016, Mazzoli and Vavrek travelled to Skye, where they were inspired by hearing the musicality of the local accents, and by rocky bluffs and cliffs covered with vegetation, in what Vavrek calls “this weird marriage of the violent and the lush”.

“It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve been inspired by a natural landscape,” confirms Mazzoli. “Most of my work is about human beings and the drama they create, and people in impossible situations and conflicts. I don’t usually write pieces about nature. But I was struck by the Isle of Skye’s landscape of contrasts: you have a lush rolling hill that ends in a dramatic cliff that crashes into the ocean. It was so very musical to me, and [it was] where I came up with the first chord of the opera, which generates a lot of the material in the piece … It was this great, crashing chord. I think it was essential for us to go there.”

Opera’s “superpower” is its ability to create subtext, says Mazzoli, to “add layers to the psychological drama that isn’t there in the film”. The opera also lets us into Bess’s head, and, Mazzoli says, “maybe Bess is music”.

What does Mazzoli mean by this, besides the bells Bess hears at the mention of her husband? “To her, music is the bells, the music of the outsiders,” says Mazzoli. “It’s a representation of her sexuality and her true self, which is brought to life when she hears the bells, and which is activated by Jan’s love. She’s irrepressible and wild in the way music would have felt to that community at that time. She is the lifeblood of this community, in a sense, and certainly of this story.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


Sydney Mancasola (Bess) and Duncan Rock (Jan) in Breaking the Waves. Photograph by James Glossop

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