Podcast 53: Missy Mazzoli and Melissa Smey—Proving Up

Missy Mazzoli and Melissa Smey join Peter, Brooke & Walker to talk about the New York premiere of Mazzoli & Vavrek’s chamber opera, PROVING UP this September 26 & 28,  Miller Theater at Columbia University as well as other works by Mazzoli and the new Chamber Opera Initiative of Miller Theater.

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  • Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music


  • Tarzan: The Musical by Berkshire Theater Group
  • Hubbard Street Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow
  • Carousel, recent Broadway revival
    • Renee Fleming as Nettie


  • The Rose Elf, chamber opera
    • The Angel’s Share, classical music concerts presented in the Catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY
  • David Hertzberg, composer
    • The Wake World, chamber opera now recorded
  • On Site Opera
  • Sketches from Frankenstein
    • Gregg Kallor, composer/pianist


  • Head Over Heels on Broadway
    • Go-Go Girls music used for score
    • Michael Mayer, director
    • Spencer Liff, choreographer

PROVING UP, a chamber opera (Performances 9/26 & 9/28 2018)
Missy Mazzoli, composer
Royce Vavrek, librettist
Karen Russell, short story author of the underlying work
Miller Theater at Columbia University, co-commissioner
Melissa Smey, Associate Dean, School of the Arts and Executive Director of Miller Theater

  • Melissa’s first job in NYC was in the press dep’t of the Metropolitan Opera
  • As part of Miller Theater’s 30th Anniversary Season, Melissa created
    a new Chamber Opera Initiative
  • The Space was formerly known as the McMillan Academic Theater
    • Artists who presented works there included:
      • Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Martha Graham & Isamu Noguchi
    • From 1941-1958 there existed the Columbia Opera Workshop

Washington National Theater was the lead commissioning company and were joined by Opera Omaha and Miller Theater

1st production was part of the American Opera Intiative

  • Washington National Opera
  • Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center
  • Alison Moritz, director
  • Christopher Rountree, conductor
  • Young Artists of WNO

2nd production was as part of Opera Omaha ONE Festival

  • Bow Truss Gallery at The KANEKO
    • A huge Sculpture gallery with a dirt floor
  • James Darrah, Artistic Director ONE Festival and stage director
  • Christopher Rountree, conductor
  • International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

3rd production as part of the Chamber Opera Intiative

  • Miller Theater at Columbia University
  • The same directors/cast from Omaha are doing the Miller Theater production

Opera story has some supernatural elements and is about the fictional Zegner family who are homesteaders in the late 1860’s in the process of trying to “prove up” to gain the final deed to their land.

How to prove up:

  • To get the land you have to be the head of the household, or at least 21 years of age
  • You must build a home and live on the land
  • You must make improvements to the land and farm it for 5 years
  • Two neighbors or friends must vouch that you have done all the above
  • Karen Russell added for this story that you must have one window made of glass.

Mazzoli operas:

  • Song From the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhard
    • based on fragments of Isabelle’s diary
  • Breaking the Waves
    • based on the screenplay by Lars van Trier
  • Proving Up
    • based on a short story and told in a series of chapters including flashbacks and supernatural sequences

BUSTED: America’s Poverty Myths

  • Brooke Gladstone, creator and moderator
  • WNYC Studios “On the Media”
  • 5 part series explores the distorted view of poverty in America andthe Media’s role in framing the issue

Karen Russell is a 2006 Graduate of the School of the Arts/Columbia University

  • Swamplandia was the novel that got her noticed, finalist 2012 Pulitzers
  • Vampires In the Lemon Grove, a collection of short stories
  • Proving Up comes out of this collection
  • She had a new short story in New Yorker Magazine in June 2018

Peggy Monastra, Director of Promotion, G. Schirmer, Inc.

Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All

Elliot Carter, What Next

PROVING UP staff/cast in Omaha and at the Miller Theater

  • Michael Slattery – Miles Zegner
    • Miles in Britten’s Turn of the Screw was a character model
  • John Moore – Pa Zegner
    • sang the male lead, Jan in Breaking the Waves
  • Talise Trevigne – Ma Zegner
    • singer was also featured in premiere productions of JFK by
  • David T. Little and Royce Vavrek
  • Cree Carrico – Zegner Daughter Littler
  • Abigail Nims – Zegner Daughter Taller
  • Andrew Harris – The Sodbuster
  • James Darrah, director
  • Christopher Rountree, conductor
  • International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

In this opera, the “villain” of the the story, The Sodbuster doesn’t show up until the last 20 minutes of the opera and then doesn’t stop singing.

Andrew Harris was singing the lead of Handel’s Ariodante in a deconstructed, audience interactive version in rep with Proving Up.

Missy intentionally chose to bring a different sound to the orchestration for this opera than the one she used for Breaking the Waves. It was inspired by what the sound of drought might be, including instruments such as the harpsichord, the harmonica and 7 differently tuned guitars.

Vespers For a New Dark Age, a vocal work with chamber orchestra

It reimagines the traditional vespers prayer service, exploring the intersection of our modern technological age with the archaic formality of religious services.
Missy has always been attracted to dark subjects, stories that look at sec, death and violence. As has her principal librettists, Royce Vavrek, i.e. the stories of Angel’s Bone, Vinkensport, Dog Days, etc.
She grew up in rural Pennsylvania studying and playing the piano, although her family is non-musical.

Two new orchestral works that are more positive are:

1. Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)

  • It is a piece written in the shape of a solar system – little loops that connect in to a larger unity.
  • This piece was premiered in April 2014 by LA Philharmonic
  • Boulder Symphony gave it’s next performance
  • BBC Proms Orchestra performed it in September 2017
    • Karina Canellakis, conductor

2. Ecstatic Science for a sextet of instruments

  • premiered in December 2016 at Carnegie Hall

Melissa Smey/ Miller Theater at Columbia University

  • Composer Portrait Series
    • Each composer gets five days in the actual theater to rehearse!
    • Kate Soper, composer/soprano
      • IPSA DIXIT, a chamber opera
      • Dixon Place presented the World Premiere
    • David T. Little, composer
      • Haunt of Last Nightfall: A “ghost play in two acts” for percussion quartet and electronics
        • Third Coast Percussion
      • Agency, for string quartet and electronics
        • ACME
    • Hannah Lash, composer/harpist
      • Miller has commissioned a new chamber opera in October 2019 for
      • 3 singers and String quartet
      • The Jack Quartet

Columbia Opera History

  • Lorenzo Da Ponte founded the Italian Studies program at Columbia University
  • Jack Beeson created the Opera Workshop at Columbia in 1941
  • Many composers and other artists education was funded by the G.I. Bill.
  • Douglas Moore was one of regular participants.

The Composer Portraits and other music series of Miller Theater are well supported by NEA & NYSCA.

Missy Mazzoli has new opera commissions in process, one of them is for Opera Philadelphia and Norwegian Opera.

Victoire is the music ensemble she founded to explore the boundaries between classical, electronic and modern pop music.



  • Bernhardt/Hamlet by playwright Theresa Rebeck
    • Janet McTeer stars at Sarah Bernhardt


  • Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle at Metropolitan Opera


  • Samson et Dalila at Metropolitan Opera (2018-19 Season Opener)
    • Darko Tresnjak, director
    • Roberto Alagna – Samson
    • Elina Garanca – Delila


  • Marnie at Metropolitan Opera
    • Nico Muhly, composer
    • Michael Mayer, director

Wagner’s Ring Cycle – San Francisco Opera Production

  • Francesca Zambello, director
    • Glimmerglass Festival

Darkness/Comedy in Opera

  • Candide by Leonard Bernstein
    • Washington National Opera
    • Glitter and Be Gay, an aria from Candide
  • O Mio Bambino Caro, an aria from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini
  • Falstaff by Verdi


  • COW’S NUTTY CHRISTMAS, a new young audience musical
    • Rabbithole Theatricks
    • New York Theatre Festival at Hudson Guild Elliot Center
    • Three performances: 9/24, 9/28 & 9/30
    • www.rabbithole theatricks.org


  • Carnival of the Animals for narrator and orchestra
    • Miller Theater at Columbia University
    • Jennifer Kidwell, narrator





Credits: Peter Szep, Chuck Sachs, Brooke Larimer, Walker Lewis, Matthew Wilson (Audio Engineer), Peter Szep (Editor)

Proving Up

MUSIC BY Missy Mazzoli
LIBRETTO BY Royce Vavrek
Adapted from the short story “Proving Up” by Karen Russell
Co-commissioned by Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, and Miller Theatre at Columbia University
Wednesday, September 26, 8 p.m.
Friday, September 28, 8 p.m
The performance runs approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.
Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek thrilled audiences and critics alike in 2016 with the premiere of their opera Breaking the Waves. This dynamic creative duo reunites for Proving Up, a harrowing tale of a family’s pursuit of the American Dream set in post-Civil War Nebraska. Miller’s 30th Anniversary Season opens with the New York premiere of this chamber opera that is by turns optimistic, exultant, and menacing.

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