Missy Mazzoli looks back with fondness at her ‘Orpheus’ experience

Of her "Orpheus Undone," which receives its world premiere in CSO concerts March 31 to April 5, Missy Mazzoli says, “I wrote it with this orchestra in mind. It’s the longest and largest work that I have created outside of opera.”

©Todd Rosenberg Photography

The acclaimed composer Missy Mazzoli had anticipated the world premiere of her Orpheus Undone, a 15-minute work commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to occur in April 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, and the premiere was postponed to that fall. As the pandemic continued to surge, the work’s debut was delayed yet again. 

Two years later, Mazzoli remains confident that the third time will be a charm. The former CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence will be in the house when Riccardo Muti and the CSO finally give the premiere of Orpheus Undone in concerts March 31 to April 5. “I wrote it with this orchestra in mind,” she said. “It’s the longest and largest work that I have created outside of opera.” The rare opportunity to tackle a major piece for Muti and the CSO is clearly something that Mazzoli relished. So much so, the CSO and Muti had “to be the ones to premiere it.”

Orpheus Undone is based on Greek mythology. A musician and poet, the son of a Muse and a king, Orpheus had superhuman powers. When he traveled with Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, Orpheus saved them from the Sirens by using his own music as a weapon. On his journey home, he met and married Eurydice, who soon died from a snake bite. Grief-stricken, he descended into the underworld to recover his beloved.

Mazzoli’s Orpheus Undone follows the hero as he attempts to rescue Eurydice in a mission that will prove disastrous. “It has moments of incredible lightness and determination," said Mazzoli of her piece. “And then at the end, a sort of resolve and pain.”

In her program note about the work, Mazzoli describes Orpheus Undone as “an exploration of two brief moments in the Orpheus myth — the moment that Eurydice dies, and the moment that Orpheus decides to follow his lover into the underworld. Constructed of two connected movements, Behold the Machine, O Death and We of Violence, We Endure, this work explores the baffling and surreal stretching of time in moments of trauma or agony. The movement titles come from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and this work uses small fragments of material from my 2019 ballet Orpheus Alive.”

In an interview earlier this year with NewCity, Mazzoli said that her goal “was to play with this idea of things moving at different speeds which in my experience is something that happens in moments of great shock or trauma. You know, things feel like they’re moving either very fast, or very slow and sometimes both at the same time. The whole piece plays with tempo in that way in that there are a lot of different tempi going on at the same time, and it’s emotionally a piece about that moment.”

During the two-year pandemic delay, Mazzoli continued to work with CSO musicians in smaller groups for CSO Sessions and rescheduled MusicNOW programs, which were recorded and streamed online via CSOtv. Mazzoli sees gains from that experience: “I do feel that through working with so many individual players in small groups, even if it was a bit piecemeal, the orchestra and I managed to establish something of a relationship.

“That is important because there is some risk involved in the sonic palette I am using for the CSO work I’ve written,” Mazzoli said. “My Orpheus Undone is a massive orchestral piece, but I am treating the materials in a new way. It’s very exciting in terms of the extended techniques I’m using — strings producing a scratchy tone, percussion used in vibrant expressive ways. Plus, I’m experimenting with form. The first part is very long, followed by a short section. So I have taken risks formally with the piece as well.”

Another of Mazzoli’s new works-in-progress, for the Metropolitan Opera in 2025, also deals with a dark and mysterious transitory experience. Based on the novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, it finds President Lincoln in 1862, and in a surreal state of mind, as the bloody Civil War rages while his son succumbs to typhoid, and ghosts linger.

With a touch of self-deprecating humor, Mazzoli explains the morbid nature of this subject matter. “I have an ex-boyfriend who described me as a sex-and-death artist, but I am unapologetic that this is what I find myself writing about,” she said. “There is so much mystery around death, particularly in Western culture, which does not have a tradition of talking about it in a direct way. Yet music in general, and opera in particular, is so surreal. And this surreal nature of music provides an opportunity to look at death more directly and creatively, in an inspiring and uplifting way. I’ve been upfront about wanting to do that. 

“After all, a big orchestra piece takes up to a year to write, and an opera four years, so I need to deal with subjects that fascinate me. My music is about a lot of things, but there is that through line of darkness that is always right there with the light.”

Mazzoli is a musician’s musician in the sense that she is active as a pianist, she writes all kinds of music, and she counts other composers, instrumentalists and singers among her close friends. Like Muti, Mazzoli is also a person of the theater. She writes beautifully for the voice. Already she’s an award-winning opera composer, with three ambitious works completed and the new Met commission still ahead. 

Back in 2016, audiences at the Chicago Fringe Opera heard a mesmerizing version of Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar, a pocket opera about the late 19th-century Swiss explorer and free spirit Isabelle Eberhardt. She traveled throughout North Africa, wrote under the protection of a male pseudonym, espoused the anti-colonial cause and died at 27. This season, Lyric Opera of Chicago had scheduled Mazzoli’s hardscrabble frontier opera Proving Up, but it was canceled due to the omicron surge last winter.

Though two of the three years of her CSO tenure, from 2018 to 2021, were “a tough time for the orchestra, I do feel we were able to accomplish a lot, and to do important things.

“I also have great respect for professional performers and for the tradition," she said. “I perform as a pianist, and I know that it’s really something else to put yourself out there like that, approaching all this experimentation with a great deal of humility and respect. My asking them to do new things can be a little scary, and I have to trust that we can get to the [last] rehearsal in successful ways. You can be respecting the tradition and be embracing something new — the one doesn’t have to cancel the other out.”