Miles and Nore, Proving up

Score title

Miles and Nore, Proving up


Missy Mazzoli

More about the composer



Program note

When Washington National Opera first asked me to create a new chamber opera, my librettist Royce Vavrek and I set out to find a story that was timely, unusual, and uniquely American. We found the perfect inspiration in the writing of Karen Russell, who in 2013 published the short story on which the opera is based. Russell’s story is a surreal and haunting commentary on the American dream as experienced by the Zegners, a fictional family of 1860s homesteaders. This narrative feels newly relevant at this fraught moment in my nation’s history, when people are examining and reevaluating the achievability of the American Dream. The Zegners are a family that does everything “right” and are still undermined by forces beyond their control. These characters have parallels in our contemporary world: a mother who tries to maintain control through domestic order, a father who turns to the bottle under the pressures of supporting a family, children forced to take on responsibilities beyond their years, a lone, deranged man who resorts to violence and destruction. These are ordinary people in an impossible situation, a brutal world where dead children sing, pigs and horses become the audience for one’s deepest secrets, and zombie-like sodbusters wander the desolate prairie. Pushed to the edge by poverty and ultimately undermined by fate, the Zegners’ fixation on “proving up” never wanes. The story’s surrealism suggested to me a music unmoored from time; the score includes imagined fiddle tunes, Baroque gestures, scrap metal percussion, seven acoustic guitars, eight harmonicas and harpsichord in addition to the chamber ensemble.

In this aria, adolescent Miles saddles up his horse, Nore, and sets off on his own hero’s journey, determined to help his family “prove up” and attain the title to their land. His youthful optimism is counteracted by the inhospitable environment and the presence of mysterious supernatural elements.