"Why turn something into an opera?" laughs Duncan Rock, the male lead bass-baritone in Breaking the Waves. "It’s very expensive, there are significant limitations and film is a much easier medium. And yet, [Breaking the Waves] is so worth seeing as entirely separate from the film." He adds: "Because opera allows us to tell a story in a more abstract way, allows the story to answer to itself in a more interpretive space."
Rock is the male lead bass-baritone in Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of Lars von Trier’s heartbreaking 1996 film Breaking the Waves. Rock plays Jan McNeill, the masculine, charming husband to Bess. Bess, played by Sydney Mancasola, is beautiful, enigmatic and naïve. Qualities which put her in danger. After Jann suffers an injury, he urges Bess to take carnal risks.
There is an agonising inevitability to the original film. Breaking the Waves is akin to an ancient Greek tragedy. Wrought with dramatic irony, the story seems to position protagonists that are totally blinded to the tragedy of their own decisions, while the remaining characters sit powerless – hopelessly watching the story unfold.
"There is one beautifully written scene in the middle of the piece,” says Rock. “[Jan] is completely static throughout it, but it's where all the characters who love Bess, and have her best interests at heart, are trying to get through to her and she’s just resisting every single one of their attempts at helping her. And that’s when you know this is going to end badly… She’s just closed herself to all attempts at reason. I think that’s entirely powerful and the rest of the opera flows from there."
Scenes like these give us a sense of Mazzoli’s intention to focus on themes such as futility, naivety and control. Given the shocking nature of it, the audience is not given as much time to reflect on these elements in the film. Bess’ experience and development is tousled by the religiosity of her church and upbringing. "[Jan] fails to see Bess’ emotional stuntedness for what it actually is," says Rock. "He sees it as a beauty, a playfulness and innocence… [not] a lack of maturity. It is unintentional, but he fails to see it."
Rock’s perspective makes it clear why Breaking the Waves is a story so well-suited to the medium of opera. "There have been operas that you see and think ‘that didn’t add anything to the story’, but that is certainly not what you will feel with this piece." The sense of futility is exacerbated through the operatic chorus and choral score. This is what lends the story so well to the dramatism of opera.
Mazzoli seeks to homage the harsh coolness of the film’s location of the Scottish Highlands through stage design and lighting. "We are somewhat limited to what is possible on stage versus in film, so Mazzoli emulates coldness through slightly different means," says Rock. "The oil rig that Jan works on is more prominent in the opera, it looms forebodingly over the entire set."
Mazzoli works to highlight coldness partly through the characters, but also through the score. In the film, the loveless response of Bess’ church elders and family contrasts with the protectiveness from her friend Jojo and the Doctor. In comparison, Mazzoli’s adaptation features "a chorus of men who both represent the men in the town but also the oppressive, religiosity… not hyper-masculine but certainly misogynistic attitude of the clergy," says Rock. "There is no chorus of women in this opera, so you don’t get that sort of feminine warmth, because even the mother is quite a cold character."
Von Trier’s original film is broken into chapters. Each chapter is introduced via oddly calming songs by Elton John, Leonard Cohen and, Bob Dylan. In Mazzoli’s adaptation, the audience has no such relief. “The music leans into the intensity much more than the film. The score hugely influences the content, music is almost like another character,” says Rock. "Breaking the Waves is quite unique in that it unashamedly leans into the intensity of it. I actually quite love that about the piece – the opera is really rather incredible in that it tells the story through these snapshots in time. It doesn’t mean they are all heavy and depressing, but each one is entirely essential to the plot. There is no fat on this opera."