Once people hear that the opera “is a strong statement story” and “not just a bunch of people in helmets with horns,” Marcus DeLoach thinks they will want to see it.
DeLoach, an assistant professor of voice and opera at the Boyer College of Music and Dance, acts in Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere of “Breaking the Waves,” an adaption of Lars von Trier’s 1996 film.
“Breaking the Waves” is set in Scotland in the 1970s. The story follows Bess, a woman from a secluded Calvinist community, who struggles with her husband Jan’s recent paralysis. In the opera, Jan encourages Bess to find other partners.
DeLoach plays the Minister, the leader of the church elders.
“My part is very much about upholding what the church believes in,” he said. “This particular group of Christians is very much dedicated to the word that is in the bible, exactly what the word is.”
While DeLoach said that some people may perceive him as a villain in the opera, he thinks that von Trier, the director of the original film, would disagree.
“[Von Trier] would say that I am just one of the people in the story who is trying to do what is good,” DeLoach said.
In a panel discussion after a screening of “Breaking the Waves” at the PFS Roxy Theater, the opera’s composer, Missy Mazzoli, reinforced DeLoach’s sentiment about the goodness of all the characters.
“My interpretation is that [Jan] is acting from a place of goodness. … He’s watched her have this sexual awakening,” Mazzoli said. “He also knows about her extreme loyalty to him and that she will only leave his bedside if she can find love with another man.”
The Calvinist principles that drive Bess’s inner conflict are reflected in the opera’s lighting and set design.
“[The chorus of men] have this very thick, heavy silhouette onstage that very much establishes the Calvinist feeling of these elders. … It kind of feels like the church with the stone walls [of the set],” said Adam Rigg, the show’s set designer.
Rigg said Bess’s sexual awakening is conveyed visually through costuming. Bess begins the opera in a “heavy wool coat with thick boots” but by the end she is dressed in “bright red and orange and rust-colored hot pants, and a loose-fitted linen shirt.”
“[The characters] all start together on this one space on stage, and then Bess keeps jettisoning off like a comet out of that visual world,” said Rigg.
Royce Vavrek is the librettist, or lyricist of the opera. He spoke during the panel discussion about the quirks of adapting an opera from a film.
“Because music adds so much space, it was important for me to really condense [the screenplay] and to make sure that I had allowed room for Missy’s music to really be the dramatic engine of the piece,” said Vavrek.
Mazzoli said that the opera needed to use arias, songs with a solo singer and musical accompaniment, to mimic the emotional effects of the film’s close-up photography.
“There are so many amazing close-ups in this film…You zoom in on [Bess’s] face and she’s having sex with Jan and you just see this true love in her eyes, but how do we show that in music?” said Mazzoli. “We started thinking of the aria as the close-up.”
For Rigg, the translation from film to opera actually altered his perceptions of the characters.
“There’s something about the sensitivity of a musical experience…even the characters that in the film are difficult to relate to, I find in the opera very easy to sympathize with and much simpler to understand,” he said.
Despite these many changes, DeLoach insisted that “the story you see in the movie is the story you get in the opera.”
“I’m very encouraged by the way they’ve translated it, because it seems just as natural in this genre of opera as watching the movie did,” said DeLoach.
Beyond “Breaking the Waves,” DeLoach said he thinks the recent explosion of acclaimed television dramas indicates a positive future for opera.
“You think about the way that TV has improved, how sophisticated a new drama on TV is in the way it’s delivered these days. I think the audiences for that are potential audiences for new operas,” he said. “People want to see smart stuff. So I’m very enthusiastic about the future of contemporary opera.”
Ian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.