An interview with groundbreaking composer Missy Mazzoli

Wmc Fbomb Missy Mazzoli Carolin Tompkins 9618
Credit: Caroline Tompkins

Composers, like so many other jobs in the arts and beyond, are notoriously disproportionately male. According to one survey, during the 2014-2015 concert season, only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed by the 22 largest American orchestras were composed by women. Composer Missy Mazzoli, however, aims to change that.

After founding the all-female band Victorie in 2007, Mazzoli went on to be the composer-in-residence at the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 2012 and receive a 2015 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award. Not only has Mazzoli been deemed “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York” by the New York Times, but she is also the founder of the Luna Lab, a mentorship program for female-identifying composers between the ages of 13-19.

Mazzoli recently talked to the FBomb about her work, Opera’s #MeToo moment, and her hopes for future female composers.

The FBomb: Was making your band, Victorie, all-female an intentional choice? If so, why and what has the experience of creating music with other women been like?

 Missy Mazzoli: I initially chose the members of Victoire for their musical ability and because they are some of my closest friends, but very quickly realized that it was important and fulfilling for me to have a small portion of my music-making take place in an all-female environment. It’s a rare and precious experience; often I’m the only woman in a group of composers or performers. We have the same arguments and frustrations of any band, but we start and end in a place of great compassion and shared experience. Early on, Victoire became a totally supportive place for us to each express our creativity, to try new things, and fail spectacularly in a safe environment. When we’re together we just focus on the music, but I don’t think you can escape a conversation about gender when you’re working in a male-dominated field. Our goal is to make it about the music first, but to frankly and honestly answer questions about gender when they come up.

The FBomb: Plenty of young female musicians have spoken out about the sexism they've faced both from the industry while trying to establish themselves as musicians, as well as from their own audiences. Have you personally faced or witnessed these experiences? If so, do you have any thoughts on why they're happening and what can or should be done?

Missy Mazzoli: Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman in her thirties who hadn’t experienced a great deal of unfair treatment! For me, and for Victoire, it ranges from good old-fashioned blatant sexism to a sneakier, uglier kind of double standard that puts female musicians in impossible situations and makes it very hard to get ahead in one’s field.

 One way to change this is to put women in positions of power; even one woman in the boardroom will alter the dynamic and will tend to open up doors for other women. I’ve seen this again and again in New York City — producers like Beth Morrison, Melissa Smey, and Limor Tomer are able to foster non-toxic environments and create extremely innovative programming in the process. We also need to start giving young women more opportunities based on their potential, not just based on their past experiences. Men are more often given opportunities based on potential, while women are constantly asked to provide proof, again and again, that they are capable of ambitious projects.

The FBomb: Can you tell us about the transition to composing opera, and how you have handled being a woman in such a male-dominated industry?

Missy Mazzoli: I’ve always been interested in opera, and even my earlier songs and instrumental works were extremely dramatic and narrative. In 2012 two things happened: I became composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia and I premiered my first opera, Song from the Uproar, at the New York venue The Kitchen, and at that point I was hooked. I fell in love with the collaborative nature of opera, and with the immersive environment a composer can create when working with a director and set designer. Music has always been my way of making sense of the world, and opera is a great way to tell stories, raise issues, and talk about big ideas and emotions.

I would never voluntarily work with anyone who made me feel self-conscious about my gender. I speak out when necessary, but also focus my energy on collaborators and organizations that inspire me. I also carve out a little space in my creative life to work in female-only environments, and devote an increasing amount of my time to the education and mentorship of younger female composers. I get a lot of strength and inspiration from the fearless women and girls of the next generation.

The FBomb: Your age and gender seem to be cited by critics as "unique" or possibly influential factors in your work, especially considering that opera is a heavily male-dominated space. Do you believe these aspects of your identity (or any other) shape your work? If so, how?

Missy Mazzoli: My work often centers on powerful female characters who act as avatars for contemporary fears, desires, and hopes. Isabelle Eberhardt, the heroine of my first opera, was an early 20th-century Swiss explorer who traveled extensively through North Africa dressed as a man. Bess McNeil, the center of my second opera, Breaking the Waves, finds herself caught between the demands of her husband, her family, and the domineering presence of the Calvinist church. “Ma” Zegner, a principal character in my third opera, Proving Up, maintains a sense of control and order through obsessive domestic chores, one of the only permissible roads to power for a woman in 1860s Nebraska. I think the fact that I’m a woman allows me to approach these characters with a particular kind of empathy and nuance; I find inspiration in my own life and in the lives of all the women in my family.

The FBomb: The opera world has recently had to contend with its own #MeToo revelations, from the firing of James Levine to NPR's conversation with three female opera singers about their experiences. How did you react to these revelations? Did they make you reflect on your own experiences in the opera world?

Missy Mazzoli: Absolutely. The fact that there has been harassment in the classical music world is no surprise, but the extent of that harassment and the sheer audacity of the predators is still astonishing. I keep going back to the idea that we need more diversity in our leadership, and in particular we need more women in positions of power. In my experience, when there is a diverse group of leaders, abuse and harassment is less likely to go unchecked.

The FBomb: You're involved in a mentorship program for young female-identifying composers. What has that experience been like? What do you think you've been able to teach them and what do you think you've learned from them?

In 2016, along with composer Ellen Reid and in partnership with the Kaufman Music Center here in New York, I founded Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program for female-identifying composers ages 13-19. Luna Lab has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of the last few years. Each year we provide year-round musical mentorship, via Skype, to young women from all over the country. In late spring we bring our students to New York City for a week of concerts featuring their music, field trips, master classes and networking parties. I really feel that to change the field at large, we need to better support teenage girls who are interested in the arts. At some point in their teens, many girls decide that composing is something that they can’t do, and too many of them are discouraged from pursuing a musical career because they don’t have role models to guide them along the way. Luna Lab embraces the idea that mentorship is an essential part of changing the gender balance in music, and that even one great mentor or role model can change a young woman’s life forever.

More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Feminism
More articles by Tag: Equality, Music, Sexism, Women's leadership



Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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