Q and A with Missy Mazzoli on Orpheus Alive
by Susan Walker
October 3, 2019

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Missy Mazzoli is an acclaimed music composer and performer based in New York City. Comfortable in genres from rock to classical opera, she is known for her inventiveness, for mixing up musical genres and for collaborating with a wide range of performers. Her music has been played all over the world by ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet, individual performers including Emanuel Ax, and opera companies and symphonies from Philadelphia to Sydney, Australia.
 
Several years ago, The National Ballet of Canada’s Choreographic Associate Robert Binet approached Mazzoli to work with him on a new ballet based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The composition she created for Orpheus Alive is Mazzoli’s first work for ballet. She spoke with Susan Walker in Toronto this past spring, as she was finalizing the score.
 
What did you think when Robert Binet approached you to compose the score for Orpheus Alive?
I was initially nervous about tackling the Orpheus and Eurydice myth because in opera, where most of my work is lately, it’s a story that has been told over and over again, beginning from the 1600s onwards. However, I came to see the familiarity of the story as an asset: because the myth is so well known, we could take the story into strange, new places with the music and the production.
 
How did you and Robert solve the problem of making an oft-told story new?
We both wanted particularly to play with the sexes, and so right from the beginning, we knew that Orpheus would be a woman and Eurydice would be a man. Even making that simple switch changes a lot of the dynamics of the story.
 
The ballet is set in the present, or very recent past, in Toronto. There are also references to previous tellings of the story, so in my composition I quote the Gluck opera Orfeo ed Euridice from 1762 and there are melodies from that that come back again and again.
 
What was the effect of reversing the roles?
When Robert came to me with the idea, I said, great. I had never seen a female Orpheus before, except in opera where a female singer plays the man’s role, so it doesn’t really count. I just kept pushing him to go weirder and weirder. It’s rare in opera and ballet and in most media to see these complicated female characters. She’s arrogant, but she’s also incredibly strong. She’s all these different things and it’s not simple.
 
And this is your first time composing a score for dance?
Yes. I have always had an interest in writing for dance. Some dance has been choreographed to music I’d written for other purposes, but this is the first time that I’ve written music specifically for a dance company and work. I love collaboration, big projects and dramatic work. Ballet checks all those boxes.
 
What was most challenging about working on Orpheus Alive?
For me as a composer, the challenging thing is always gauging how much information I need to put into the music itself. The question always is how much of the story do I need tell just through the music. Figuring that out was tricky and also understanding how much could be sort of washy and abstract, how much needed to be really rhythmic and what is the ideal combination of the two.
 
The way that I answered these fundamental questions was to get up in my studio and move around. I would write the music and then play it back through my speakers and just dance around my studio. If something made me want to move, I would keep it. If the energy just died, then I would start over.
 
Does this score feature electronic as well as orchestral elements and how did you arrange them?
There are all these different levels to the Orpheus story. Sometimes we’re in the real world, sometimes we’re in the underworld and sometimes we’re in the space between the two worlds. I wanted to delineate them by using different sonic landscapes. Every time we go into the underworld, there’s a heavy electronic component and it’s combined in an interesting way with the orchestral music.
 
At what point do you start working with the National Ballet orchestra?
Not until right before performances, which is nerve-wracking, but typical. The composition was basically completed in Spring 2019, allowing for small adjustments after the choreography is completed.
 
Has this project made you want to work more in ballet?
It really has. It’s interesting to play your music in front of a room full of strangers because you hear it in a different way. It has been amazing seeing my own music from a totally different perspective. Watching how people naturally move to the music you’ve made is a completely new experience for me and it’s been really illuminating. Seeing the dancers in rehearsal has been my favourite part of this whole process.
 
It’s often said that music as well as dance can say things that can’t be said in words. Has that been your approach to storytelling in music?
Yes, I’m interested in the emotion in-between emotions. It’s not interesting for me to portray something that is obvious, even a compelling love story. If it goes in the direction you think it’s going to go, that for me is less challenging.
I am interested in portraying aspects of a loss, of grief or joy that are complicated. Often these emotions come right up against each other. There’s joy mixed with sadness, mixed with grief, mixed with longing – nothing is simple. Music and dance can get into the psychology of complicated emotions much more than text alone.
 
This is why I’m drawn to opera – the score creates the subtext for the emotions. A character can be saying one thing, but thinking something different and the music gives you a window into their mind. I think that’s true for dancers too, maybe the story is going in one direction, but the dance and the music are pulling you in other directions. That’s what intrigues me.
 

Orpheus Alive & Chaconne is onstage November 15 –  21, 2019.

 

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