Composing Women's Stories: A Conversation with Missy Mazzoli

By Victoria Hutter
Photo of Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli. Photo by Marylene May

Missy Mazzoli is a composer with eclectic and fascinating interests. For example, her opera Song from the Uproar: The Lives & Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, which had its world premiere in 2012 with NEA support, tells the story of this Swiss explorer, writer, and cultural rebel of the early 20th century, while Breaking the Waves follows Lars von Trier’s 1996 film about a young woman torn between love, faith, and obedience. Her third major opera, Proving Up, is based on a short story about homesteaders in mid-19th century Nebraska. The opera had its world premiere in Washington, DC, in January 2018, and will premiere at Opera Omaha in April 2018 with NEA support.

This attraction to fierce subjects is perhaps not surprising given the tenacity required to garner acclaim in a field dominated by male composers. Mazzoli is an outspoken advocate for women in composition, and in 2016, along with composer Ellen Reid and in partnership with the Kaufman Music Center, she helped launch Luna Composition Lab, a development program for young women aspiring to realize their dreams as composers. We spoke to Mazzoli as the dress rehearsal was about to begin for Proving Up’s premiere as part of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative.


I started writing [music] when I was about ten and immediately felt that that was what I wanted to do. I fell in love with classical piano and with [classical] composers. I thought, “Whatever they do, that's what I want to do.” Even at a young age, I had so many different interests: visual arts, theater and drama, collaboration. I wanted to put on shows. Composing allows you to do everything whereas performing felt much more limited to me. It wasn’t until I was in college that I met a living composer, and it was a few years later that I met a living female composer. Early on, Meredith Monk was a big inspiration for me, and continues to be one of my primary mentors. And then people like Julia Woolfe, who I discovered in college, and Jennifer Higdon.

A lot of my music, especially in opera, comes from my own experience and my own relationships with people. It’s always very personal. It took me a long time to realize that my vulnerability was actually my strength. People connected to what they described as honesty and vulnerability in my music and in the way that I talked about it.

Opera in America is having a golden age, or second or third golden age right now, because people are creating stories about their lives, and as a way to understand their lives, and what we’re going through as a country. I just found myself in the right place at the right time.


There are very few women in positions of power in the composition world. That’s slowly changing, but growing up as a young female composer, you don’t have many role models. I went through my whole college education, eight years of college, including two years abroad in the Netherlands, and never had a female teacher once in those eight years.

People decide to be composers at the same age they decide to be instrumentalists, sometimes a little later, but generally it’s a decision you make in your teens. What I’ve seen over the years is a lack of encouragement for teenage girls to enter this  eld. Couple that with a lack of visible role models, and why would you do this as a woman?


Opera is a huge endeavor, and you’re always taking a risk with an artist. Even if they’ve written 20 operas before that have all been hits, there’s no guarantee that this next one will be a hit. Every opera is its own world. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of men, very talented composers, who have never written an opera. They’re given a chance, because they have the potential. But I see tons of women who also have that potential, who are never given that chance. I can’t really name a woman under 27 who has been given a chance to write an opera, and I can name lots of men. These men deserve it; they’re very talented. But it’s lopsided.

I won’t say that it’s everyone’s responsibility to address this issue. For some composers, just getting up and making a life as an artist is a big enough job. That said, the world would be nicer if more people were making an effort—particularly men because they are often the ones in positions of power. They have the potential to change things, even though a move towards equality may feel like discrimination against them at first.


I think that audiences now, particularly younger audiences, want to see themselves represented in the art of [a performing company’s] programs, and in the stories that are being told.

The simple answer is to hire more women, more people of color. If you have to look harder for those people, then you should do that. Women are not taught to promote themselves as aggressively as men. Being called ambitious as a woman is a bad word, but being called ambitious as a man is a good word. We’re caught in this very tricky position.

If one out of every six commissions is for a woman, that seems little to ask. It seems very possible. At institutions that have only programmed white men for their entire existence, for hundreds of years—I can’t accept that it’s that hard for them to change. By cutting out 51 percent of the population, there’s a huge section of opera that is yet to be explored.


We need to address our efforts on early education, getting more women who are 16, 17, 18, or early in their college careers, to express themselves through music—to feel the freedom to do that. There are certainly just as many young women as men at that stage who want to be composers, but the women are weeded out. Because again, they don’t see role models, they don’t have support. Teenage girls are the most vulnerable people on the planet. They need a little bit of extra help at that time to get started. That is the point of the Luna Lab program.

I’d wanted [to start Luna Composition Lab] for years. I partnered with composer Ellen Reid who creates amazing opera, installations, and works for film and theater. Together we approached the Kaufman Music Center in New York, and they came on as a partner.

Through Luna Lab, we’re connecting young women ages 13 to 19 with a prominent female mentor. They meet once every two weeks via Skype for lessons. At the end of the season, all their works are performed in a concert in New York and recorded. They can use that recording and their mentor as a resource when they’re applying for college or competitions, or [when they have] a question of what to do next with their composing life.

The idea is that the mentees maintain a relationship with their mentor. Mentors are so important in our field. Because one’s teachers are often male, it sometimes can be difficult to establish a close relationship with them. The idea is that the Luna Lab mentors are mentors for life.

I see so much of myself in these young women. It’s an experience that all the mentors have. It is interesting how little time it takes for things to move into a personal realm.

The result has been tremendous, even in two years. Our budget and the number of students we support have more than doubled. We are adding partners almost every day, partners like National Sawdust, a venue in Brooklyn; New Amsterdam Records; and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I think that larger institutions were wondering what to do to address gender inequality, and partnering with us is an easy way to do that. It’s not a substitute for programming more women themselves. But it’s a start.