Oberlin Opera Theater Explores the Elusive American Dream in "Proving Up"

January 15, 2019

Erich Burnett

promotional art for Proving Up opera
Photo credit: Design by Ron Hetzler

Five performances of Missy Mazzoli’s unsettling chamber opera begin January 31.

American disillusionment wasn’t born in the Twitter era, though sometimes it might feel that way.

A century and a half ago, the U.S. Homestead Acts were intended to encourage agriculture in the mostly unsettled American West in the years before and after the Civil War.

For some, the government-sponsored opportunity to claim free land resulted not in the fulfillment of the fabled American dream, but in frustration and heartbreak over a political machine that promised big but often failed to deliver.

composer Missy Mazzoli
Composer Missy Mazzoli
Photo by Caroline Tompkins

That very theme inspired composer Missy Mazzoli to write Proving Up, her 2017 opera about a Nebraska family throttled by the false hope instilled by their homestead claim. To Mazzoli and others, the hardships endured by those 19th-century settlers can be likened to the trials of many who scramble to tread water in modern-day America.

Oberlin Opera Theater will present Mazzoli’s Proving Up for five dates, from January 31 through February 5. It will be staged in the Main Lounge of Wilder Hall, the college’s historic Student Union. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. for the Thursday (January 31), Friday (February 1), Monday (February 4), and Tuesday (February 5) performances, with a 2 p.m. matinee scheduled for Sunday, February 3.

Admission is free, but reservations are required using Oberlin’s online arts guide or by calling the box office at 800-371-0178.

Director Christopher Mirto
Opera theater director Christopher Mirto
Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

“I was drawn to the piece because it’s very dark,” says director Christopher Mirto, assistant professor of opera theater at Oberlin.

“When I first read it, it was after our political landscape in America had changed, so I’ve been unable to unattach it from that,” he says, referring to the 2016 election and the sociopolitical devolution he has witnessed since. “That feeling of trying to do something right and not be able to do anything—because of something that’s bigger than you and taller than you—is very moving.”

Mirto delved into similarly dark waters with last year’s winter-term production of Angel’s Bone, a harrowing opera about the effects of human trafficking, for which Oberlin Conservatory alumna Du Yun ’01 won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2017. The librettist for both operas was Royce Vavrek, a close friend of Mazzoli’s.

“I was always fascinated by the American Dream as a concept—and the validity of that concept,” says Mazzoli, a New Yorker who visited Oberlin in early January to work with the cast and crew. She will return with Vavrek for the production’s final two shows. (In 2018, Du Yun and Vavrek also visited campus to collaborate with students in advance of opening night and to attend performances of Angel's Bone.)

“In America, we often talk about our success as if everything is earned and it doesn’t matter who your parents were, where you grew up, or how much you earned," Mazzoli says.

"But of course it does matter. And the question that arose from all this was: Can a family do everything right and still fail?”

Based on a short story by Karen Russell, Mazzoli’s Proving Up was co-commissioned by Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, and Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

It features a cast of seven supported by a 13-piece orchestra under the direction of Joseph Hodge.

In writing the piece, Mazzoli sought instrumentation that could evoke “the sound of evaporation and dryness,” a reflection of the drought experienced by the family at the center of the story. Among the instruments heard are harmonicas, harpsichord, and a collection of seven guitars suspended from wires and struck with mallets by a percussionist—a setup that yields a sound similar to the dry rattle of a dulcimer, according to Mazzoli.

“I imagined a wall of tools like a dad would have hanging in the basement,” she says, describing her initial inspiration for the suspended instruments.

Talkback sessions with members of the cast, crew, and creative team will take place after each performance. Mazzoli and Vavrek will participate after the February 4 and 5 shows.

Cleveland Opera Theater , presenters of the annual New Opera Works (NOW) Festival, will sponsor the February 4 performance and talkback.

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