How a new opera helped make Opera Philadelphia new

Breaking the Waves was a "catalytic moment" for the company

In Opera Philadelphia's 2016 "Breaking the Waves," Bess (soprano Kiera Duffy) prays to God to bring her husband Jan home from the rig. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia)

When a new opera is commissioned, the highest hope is that the resulting piece can somehow change the art form -- to evolve it. That happens, if rarely.

But perhaps even rarer is the kind of alchemy that ensued when Opera Philadelphia helped to create Breaking the Waves. After the new Missy Mazzoli opera premiered in the fall, it ended up changing many of the people who brought the piece to the stage -- and the company itself.

Critical acclaim heightened the troupe’s stature. It excited three potential new board members and 10 new major donor prospects from outside the city, and stirred inquiries from artists across the globe eager to work on future projects. It also affirmed plans already in place to move toward a festival model. Much of that affirmation takes shape in the company’s 2017-18 season, announced Sunday, which includes the inaugural 12-day O17 festival in September.

“When I hang it all together, I think Breaking the Waves was a catalytic moment in the company's history because it was the culmination of a lot of work that put the artists at the center of what we do,” said David B. Devan, general director and president.

That’s no small accomplishment for a company that was at death’s door just a few years ago. Charlie Parker's Yardbird, premiered  in 2015 by Opera Philadelphia, moved the company into the consciousness of many critics and influencers. But with Breaking the Waves, Devan said, “it felt like the opera company moving from scrappy turnaround to a legitimate voice for the future of opera in our country.”

Opera has long functioned on a star system, with audiences lured by a big name singer or familiar work. In other words, “it’s a performance-driven business. It’s not a creation-driven business,” Devan said.

Breaking the Waves, however, broke the mold. “Obviously, people need to buy tickets, and we need to raise money and all that stuff, but the change in the business model now is being completely governed by artistic aspiration. It's the thing that's exciting.”

Turning loose Mazzoli's artistic aspiration paid off in the process that yielded Breaking the Waves. The opera was based on the Lars von Trier film of a woman whose paralyzed husband encourages her to find sexual adventure and then tell him about it. So Opera Philadelphia sent Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek to the Scottish Isle of Skye, where the story is set, to “think for about a week,” said Devan. 

They had no specific task, he said, “but we knew that the landscape would somehow inform the piece -- and the opening chords of the overture are essentially how Missy heard the waves crashing into the shore on the Isle of Skye. I as curating artistic director can't make that up. I can't direct somebody to do that. That has to happen, but we knew Missy and Royce enough to know that that they would get something out of that process.”

Camera icon MARYLENE MEY / Courtesy Missy Mazzoli
Missy Mazzoli, composer of opera "Breaking the Waves."

The result has grabbed a lot of attention. John Fulljames, associate director of opera for the Royal Opera in London, heard so much about the premiere of Breaking the Waves in Philadelphia that he traveled to New York  last month to see it done by co-commissioner Beth Morrison Projects.

What is his impression of the company’s reputation internationally?

“So often, opera’s institutions act as brakes on innovation and lead to risk-averse programming, which only appeals to opera’s existing audiences,” Fulljames says. “By rewiring their company’s season structure and financial model, Philadelphia seems to have put innovation and the creation of original work at the epicenter of their work. That’s inspiring for anyone who cares about the future of our amazing art form. It’s really exciting to watch, and I think the rest of the world is starting to sit up and take notice.”

That includes people like Eugene E. Stark, a start-up investor who sits on the board of the Santa Fe Opera, who says that what’s going on at Opera Philadelphia has a level of excitement “that is hard to find in a lot of companies of any type.” Stark, who joined the Opera Philadelphia board in 2016, says that “singers like Jay Hunter Morris [who was in Cold Mountain] rave about the artistic experiences they have there, and when a performer is excited, that is going to come through to the audience and in a national reputation in a sense, too.”

Mazzoli’s opera, Devan said, reinforced “a confidence where we came to believe in the artists, and that allowed us to then communicate directly, once we knew what it was, to the audience unapologetically for what it was. And if it was something that you would find meaningful, come, and if it wasn’t, don’t.”

But audiences did come, and they found meaning. In the fall, the company presented three productions in quick succession: Breaking the Waves, Turandot, and a South African take on Verdi’s Macbeth, and saw a key measure of audience satisfaction rise dramatically. Its Net Promoter Score, a system used by many Fortune 1000 companies that shows how many consumers are likely to recommend a product or experience to friends, went from 59 to 80. (The scale ranges from minus 100 points to plus 100 points). “Our audience is very much responding to what we are doing. What the NPS tells you is that when you get into 80, they are going to be far more likely to trust what you do next.”

Trust is critical. With Breaking the Waves, the company is more confident in its artistic development process for creating new works. Next season’s The Wake World by David Hertzberg about the Barnes Foundation, for instance, is turning into a different kind of piece than the one Opera Philadelphia thought it was commissioning -- more about Albert C. Barnes, and less about the art collection.

“We needed to say, ‘Oh, are we going to do that, or are we going to push David back in a direction that we thought it was going to be about the actual objects? The answer was no,” Devan said. “Without Breaking the Waves, we might’ve gone the other way, because we thought we had a clear idea of what we wanted it to be.”

Letting artistic development play out did nothing less than change Mazzoli as a composer. “It was actually part of realizing where my artistic heart has lain all along,” she says. “Even in my non-operatic work, I feel like I am working in a very cinematic, story-driven kind of way, thinking of melody and harmony in very human terms, working with each other and against each other.”

It also added up to something personal for Devan, who did not come to head an opera company via the usual route of music school or stage direction, but rather on the business side. “For me, it may not have been apparent in public, but there was always an insecurity.”

Now, he said, “yeah, I'm the right guy for this job.”