Show artwork for Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves Breaking the Waves

Composed by Missy Mazzoli

Conducted by Grant Gershon

February 27 - March 21, 2021

Company Premiere

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

The remarkable film comes to the grand opera stage.

After a near-fatal accident leaves Bessʼs new husband, Jan, paralyzed, he implores her to take lovers (quite the ask). Torn between her husbandʼs wishes and the traditional values of her small community, she determinedly follows her faith to a tragic end.

Winner of the 2017 award for “Best New Opera” by the Music Critics Association of North America, this compelling adaptation of Lars Von Trierʼs 1996 cinematic masterpiece has earned wide recognition as one of the most powerful operas of our time.

Tickets available now. Also available as part of Spring 2021 subscription packages.

"It is not easy to find new operas that command attention, tell their story lucidly and create a powerful, permeating mood. Dark and daring, Breaking the Waves does all this with sensitivity and style."

New York Times

Creative Block

Sydney Mancasola
Alexander Birch Elliott
Bess's Mother
Melody Moore
Dr. Richardson
Frederick Ballentine
Zachary James

Creative Team

Missy Mazzoli
Royce Vavrek
Grant Gershon
James Darrah
Adam Rigg
Chrisi Karvonides
Pablo Santiago
Adam Larsen
Chorus Director
Grant Gershon

Read the synopsis

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he opera takes place on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, in the early 1970s.

Act One
Childlike Bess finds love with the off-shore oil rigger, Jan, and they are married in the strict Calvinist church. While they receive the church elders' blessings, Jan, a Norwegian, is viewed as an outsider. Bess takes her marriage vows seriously, and undergoes a sexual enlightenment with her new husband. It is only a matter of time before Jan must return to the rigs to work, forcing Bess into a deep depression. In conversations with God, Bess seeks answers and solace, and hopes that spiritual intervention will bring Jan home. Shortly thereafter, a near-fatal accident on the rig forces Jan to be rushed to emergency medical attention.


Act Two
Bess learns that the accident has left Jan almost completely paralyzed. She believes it to be her fault, having asked God to bring him home. Jan knows that Bess would never step outside her matrimonial covenant, but feels that he needs to set her free so that she can live a full life. He encourages her to find men to sleep with and report back to him the events that transpire so that it will feel like they are making love. When Jan tries to kill himself by pill overdose, Bess becomes certain that she must obey her husband and find lovers. Failed attempts to woo a handsome doctor, and half-hearted sexual encounters with strangers coincide with a decline in Jan's health. When Bess finds a man and has sex with him outside an old shed, Jan's health stabilizes.

Act Three
Bess's reputation catches up to her, and she is excommunicated from the church. She fails to understand why, as she is simply following her husband's will, and his recovery seems directly proportional to her extramarital activities. Bess finds herself aboard a large commercial ship where she is savagely raped and cut up by sadistic sailors with knives. A second trip leaves her near death's door, and it is only due to the kindness of a stranger that her nearly lifeless body is delivered to the hospital. She dies as Jan wakes from his surgery, his health dramatically improved. The elders agree to provide Bess a Calvinist funeral, but insist she be buried a sinner and consign her soul to hell. Jan, who has fully recovered, steals the body before she is interred, committing her remains to the ocean. God's bells ring out Bess's melody.

Company premiere

Performed in English with subtitles

Production from Opera Philadelphia
Co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects

Running time approx: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission

This production includes explicit language, nudity, and sexual content, some of a violent nature. Recommended for mature audiences only.

Artwork for Breaking the Waves
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Spring 2021 Season