Show artwork for Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves Breaking the Waves

Composed by Missy Mazzoli

Currently Unavailable

Company Premiere

An iconic film. An unforgettable opera. Now streaming as a unique online experience.

Breaking the Waves concluded streaming on April 12th.  We hope you enjoyed the performance.

Presented digitally through the LA Opera On Now initiative, this compelling adaptation of Lars Von Trierʼs 1996 cinematic masterpiece reaches audiences through an incredibly emotional filmed performance. After a near-fatal accident leaves Bessʼs new husband, Jan, paralyzed, he implores her to take lovers. Torn between her husbandʼs wishes and the traditional values of her small community and her church, 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, groundbreaking composer Missy Mazzoli's first large-scale opera is already recognized as one of the most powerful music-theater pieces of our time.

"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

Read the synopsis

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The 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.


Missy Mazzoli
Royce Vavrek

Creative Team

Steven Osgood
James Darrah
Adam Rigg
Chrisi Karvonides
Pablo Santiago
Adam Larsen


Kiera Duffy
John Moore
Bess's Mother
Patricia Schuman
Eve Gigliotti
Dr. Richardson
David Portillo
Zachary James
Marcus DeLoach

An Opera Philadelphia Digital Production co-presented with LA Opera

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

Running time: approximately two hours, 10 minutes. Performed in English with subtitles

Co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects

This project is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts
and a consortium of donors to LA Opera’s Contemporary Opera Initiative, 
chaired by Barry and Nancy Sanders.

Artwork for Breaking the Waves
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2021/22 Season