On a cool October evening at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Missy Mazzoli is still—for a moment. Across the plaza, the windows of the Metropolitan Opera House emit a golden glow, as if beckoning the composer inside. A few weeks ago, she and fellow composer Jeanine Tesori became the first two women ever commissioned by the Met in its 135-year history. Mazzoli’s third full-length opera, Proving Up, recently closed its acclaimed New York run, and she’s emerging from the whirlwind. Based on a short story by Swamplandia! author Karen Russell, Proving Up examines the American dream through a family of homesteaders in 1860s Nebraska. “You’re taught as a young American that if you work hard and do the right things, everything is going to work out,” Mazzoli says, breaking into a wry smile, “but the reality is something very different.”
So far, hard work is paying off for Mazzoli, 38. She recently began her two-year tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, and has composed music for Amazon’s Emmy-winning series Mozart in the Jungle and collaborated on an album of modern vespers with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Inherent to her sound is an otherworldly tension, stemming from her non-traditional approach to instrumentation. Her scores chaotically flit between eerie electric guitars and trumpet blasts, harmonica drones and violin swirls; her intimate chamber orchestras have even “played” sandpaper and whips.
If Mazzoli and her repertoire defy your notions of opera, that’s the point. The average age of the Metropolitan Opera’s audience is 58, and the company has begun making concerted efforts to attract younger audiences—cutting ticket prices, marketing shows as must-see entertainment, and commissioning artists like Mazzoli.
Mazzoli started writing operas in college, seeing them as “a tremendous opportunity to give voice to some of the more extreme things we’re going through,” she says. Her debut opera, 2012’s Song From the Uproar, told the story of 19th-century Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt. In 2016, Mazzoli adapted Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves, about a woman who goes to extreme lengths to satisfy her paralyzed husband. In Proving Up, the mother is haunted by the ghosts of her young daughters as she tries to do right by her living sons. Uniting each work is the story of a woman finding power in an inhospitable world—a central narrative in Mazzoli’s own career.
While her recent Met commission is undeniably huge—the company has asked her to adapt George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo—it’s a small step toward correcting classical music’s immense gender imbalance. The stats are grim: A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey of 85 American orchestras found that only 1.3 percent of the music performed in the 2016–2017 season was composed by women. “I see men getting opportunities based on their potential, yet women have to prove themselves 10 times to be given one small opportunity,” Mazzoli says. “That’s changing, but not fast enough.”
Mazzoli’s experiences with gender disparity—in over a decade of training, she never had a woman instructor—inspired her to create the Luna Composition Lab, a New York–based program that provides mentorship for female or gender-nonconforming teenage composers. After three years, the lab’s first alumnae are thriving, including 17-year-old Maya Johnson, who became one of the youngest composers ever commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. In these new voices, Mazzoli hears the sound of progress. “At some point the system falls apart for women,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to figure out how to change it.”