An Opera Reaches the American Dream’s Brooding Heart

James Darrah
The New York Times

A tense and creepy journey into the heart of Manifest Destiny’s darkness, the opera “Proving Up” instructs us, teeth clenched, that the American dream eludes even — especially — those who give everything to gain it.

Composed by Missy Mazzoli, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, the brooding work had its New York premiere on Wednesday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. While it’s well worth hearing, there’s just one more performance, on Friday evening, and it’s nearly sold out.

But this is hardly the last we’ll be hearing from Ms. Mazzoli. Recently, the Metropolitan Opera announced that she and Jeanine Tesori would be the first female composers it would commission. (It’s about time.) For Ms. Mazzoli, that means two new operas: a mainstage spectacle, likely based on the George Saunders novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and a chamber piece to be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


The director James Darrah sets the desolate tale amid unpainted wood and a stage-filling plot of soil. When “Proving Up” was presented at Opera Omaha in April, after having its premiere at Washington National Opera in January, the playing space was a catwalk, with the audience on either side, for an experience that must have been unsettlingly immersive.
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