Composer of the Year 2022 Missy Mazzoli: ‘Being a woman in a male-dominated world is one of my big themes’

The New York Times called her ‘one of the most inventive, surprising composers’, Time Out New York dubbed Missy Mazzoli the ‘Mozart of the new millennium’. The magazine Musical America proclaimed her Composer of the Year 2022. In September her opera The Listeners will have its belated premiere at the National Opera in Norway; the production was cancelled last year due to corona. I interviewed Mazzoli about her background and inspirations.

In 2012, Missy Mazzoli (1980) attracted attention with her chamber opera Song from the Uproar, about the intriguing life of Isabelle Eberhardt. Four years later, her opera Breaking the Waves, based on the film of the same name by Lars von Trier, was received with even more enthusiasm. Proving Up, a disturbing commentary on the American Dream, also won critical acclaim in 2018. Her opera The Listeners will have its delayed premiere in September 2022; the production was cancelled last year due to corona.

Although she is widely known for her musical-theatrical work, at the outset of her career Mazzoli had vowed never to venture into this genre. ‘Opera is too complicated and too comprehensive and besides, you are dependent on a lot of people’, she said in an interview. Her opinion changed dramatically when she got to know the diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt.

Female adventurer

This Swiss-Russian adventurer (1877-1904) traversed the desert on horseback, dressed as a man. She visited Islamic sacred places and fund her travels with articles in European newspapers, published under the pseudonym Si Mahmoud. She died at the age of 27, when her hut was swept away by a sudden mudslide. After her tragic death, her diaries were found and published.

Her colourful life appealed to many imaginations. When Mazzoli heard a radio programme about Eberhardt, she was so intrigued that she immediately decided to immortalise the Swiss adventurer in music. She discerned in her passions and struggle for independence ‘a direct connection to all the contradictions that still define women’s lives’. She wished to give the public the chance ‘to experience the world of Isabelle, a world that appeals to several senses’. Despite her earlier aversion, she concluded that opera was the most suitable genre to achieve this.

Female hero

Coincidentally, she was 27 years old herself when she started on her opera. The libretto was written by the Canadian-American playwright Royce Vavrek, who has been dubbed the ‘Metastasio of the downtown opera scene’. In 2018 she wrote a second opera, Breaking the Waves, about the deeply religious Bess McNeill who sacrifices her honour and life for her handsome lover Jan, who becomes paralysed by an accident on his drilling rig.

Missy Mazzoli: ‘I value stories in which women step outside themselves and do things that are shockingly out of character, in order to maintain agency.’

As she had been moved by Eberhardt’s story earlier, this time Mazzoli was impressed by the female hero in Von Trier’s film. Instantly she knew she wanted dedicate an opera to the ‘crushing vulnerability, unwavering faith and shocking courage’ of Bess McNeill. Again, she asked Vavrek to provide the libretto. In her music she has managed to bring across the complexity of Von Trier’s main characters. Jan voices his desire for Bess in a tender but at once calculating manner. Bess sings fragile melodies against a turbulent, distorted accompaniment, which make her longings and inner anger palpable. A critic proclaimed Breaking the Waves ‘one of the best American operas of the 21st century’.

People in impossible situations

For Proving Up (2018) she again collaborated with Vavrek. This time there was no direct cause, it was a commission from the Washington National Opera. ‘We went looking for a subject that was current, unusual and uniquely American,’ says Mazzoli. They chose a short story by Karen Russell, a dystopian vision of the American Dream. A settler family bravely endures all kinds of adversity and works very hard, but is still unsuccessful. Mazzoli sees similarities with our times: ‘They are ordinary people in an impossible situation, trying to prove themselves even on the brink of the abyss.’

In Proving Up, the dead come to life and animals are made part of the characters’ inner turmoil. Mazzoli captures this somewhat surrealistic tenor by incorporating acoustic guitars, harmonicas, scrap percussion and harpsichord in the chamber orchestra. The opera got favourable reviews: ‘The music evokes uneasiness; even in the rare happy moments, the orchestration has an undercurrent of tension,’ judged one reviewer. ‘This vivid work crackles with the dangerous, captivating power of heat illumination’, wrote another. ‘Little House on the Prairie meets The Shining’, yet another reviewer summed it up succinctly. 

As a matter of course Mazzoli again asked Royce Vavrek to write the libretto for her fourth opera, The Listeners. Surprisingly it is based on the novel of the same name by Jordan Tannahill, which was published in 2021. How did she manage to get permission so quickly to base an opera on it? Mazzoli laughs: ‘It was exactly the other way round! Royce and I developed the idea with Jordan before he turned it into a book. Actually, the opera was supposed to premiere before the release of the book, but the production was cancelled due to corona.’

Desire to belong

The main character in The Listeners is a middle-class mother who notices a hum, an inexplicable high-frequency environmental noise. Only a select number of people can hear it – the ‘Listeners’ from the title. Soon a neighbourhood group is formed that tries to solve the mystery of the hum, but then an engaging leader appears who suggests it has a spiritual meaning. The meetings take on cult-like proportions and it gradually becomes clear that this community is on a collision course with destruction.

Reading the synopsis, one inevitably gets associations with Trump’s style of government, steeped in hatred and suspicion. Can we interpret The Listeners as an indictment of his presidency and unfounded accusations of voter fraud? Mazzoli: ‘There are clear parallels with Trump’s presidency, but I think it is a widespread phenomenon. The opera addresses the effect of charismatic leaders on a vulnerable and panicky part of society. It is about our desperate desire to belong, our search for community and meaning, and about how charismatic leaders exploit these needs.’

Vulnerable people swayed by charismatic leaders

In her own programme notes we read: ‘The Listeners explores how far we, as Americans, are willing to go to find a sense of place and purpose. An essential part of our American identity is a sense of earned and inevitable success and happiness. When this supposed future collides with the realities and difficulties of everyday life, greedy leaders offering a “quick fix” can easily capitalise on the vulnerability of lonely and distraught people.’

Missy Mazzoli: ‘Although America is a prosperous country, one misstep or setback (loss of a job, an accident, a sick relative) can lead to financial and personal ruin. Charismatic leaders capitalise on this vulnerability.’

Does Mazzoli think that Americans are more likely to follow such leaders? ‘In every country you find people who fall under the spell of inspiring politicians and cult leaders, but I think this is more common in countries without a social safety net. Although America is a prosperous country, one misstep or setback (loss of a job, an accident, a sick relative) can lead to financial and personal ruin.’

Women struggling to maintain agency

If Corona does not throw yet another spanner in the works, The Listeners will have its world premiere at the National Opera in Norway coming September, coinciding with Mazzoli’s honourable title ‘Composer of the Year 2022’. The magazine Musical America established the award in 1992 and it has previously gone to such luminaries as John Adams (1997), Arvo Pärt (2005) and Julia Wolfe (2019). Though it neither involves prize money nor a commission, Mazzoli is delighted: ‘It’s great to be associated with composers such as Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe and Joan Tower.’

It is no coincidence that she mentions female composers, for only six of the thirty previous awardees are women. This flagrant undervaluation is a recurring theme in Mazzoli’s work. ‘Being a woman in a male-dominated world, struggling to find an identity is one of my big themes. My opera characters serve as dramatic archetypes for our complex, modern-day fears, desires and strife. I value stories in which women step outside themselves and do things that are shockingly out of character, in order to maintain agency.’

She regularly speaks out against the dominant role that aged white men have played – and often still play – in the music world, and actively strives to diversify it. When she was Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2018-2021) she drastically reshuffled their programming: ‘I am proud to have been able to programme music by female and coloured composers such as Jessie Montgomery, Sky Macklay, Morgan Krauss, Kate Moore, Suzanne Farrin and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.’

Missy Mazzoli: ‘#MeToo gave women a much-needed language and a platform to expose abuses. Before that, the consensus was to keep quiet if teachers made sexist remarks or treated you unequally, for it might negatively impact your career.’

Prejudice and sexism

The theme is so close to her heart because as an aspiring composer she herself had to deal with prejudice and sexism. On many occasions she recalled that Louis Andriessen, with whom she studied at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, was the first ever mentor to treat her as an equal: ‘He believed in my abilities, even before I did it myself. We not only talked extensively about music, but also about literature, philosophy, film and theatre.’

Yet at times he would comment on her appearance, or call her a ‘sweet girl’, causing her discomfort. ‘These were things that I felt he would not say to my male peers. Then the feeling of being an equal turned into the feeling of being a little girl.’ She does not blame him personally, though, but rather the prevailing mores at conservatoires.

‘In roughly the first 200 years of their existence, there were no female professors. A staggering statistic, which needs no explanation of how unfair the situation was. Students need role models, so composition departments must be dramatically expanded to include more women, non-binary individuals, and people of colour.’


Mazzoli feels supported by the #MeToo movement. ‘It gave women a much-needed language and a platform to expose abuses. Before that, the consensus was to keep quiet if teachers made sexist remarks or treated you unequally. Above all, you were supposed not to play the martyr, because if you did, it would have a negative impact on your career. That said, the effect of #MeToo on academia has been less than I expected, for composition departments are still overwhelmingly dominated by white men.’

Yet, there are also some bright spots. In 2018 Mazzoli received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as the first woman ever; four years later she boasts the title Composer of the Year 2022. In this same year her Austrian colleague Olga Neuwirth received both the Grawemeyer Award and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.

– Female composers are irrevocably on the rise!


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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2 Responses to Composer of the Year 2022 Missy Mazzoli: ‘Being a woman in a male-dominated world is one of my big themes’

  1. Pingback: Emilie Mayer defied 19th century mores with grand symphonies | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  2. Thank you Thea for this insightful overview about Missy Mazzoli’s powerful works.


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