Missy Mazzoli : Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt
(English) by Royce Vavrek and Missy MazzoliIntroduction:
Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) was an explorer, nomad, journalist, novelist, passionate romantic, Sufi, and one of the most unique and unusual women of her era. At age twenty, after the death of her mother, brother and father, she left her life in Switzerland for a nomadic and unfettered existence in the deserts of North Africa. She traveled extensively through the desert on horseback, often dressed as a man, relentlessly documenting her travels through detailed journals. At age twenty-seven Isabelle drowned in a flash flood in the desert. Song from the Uproar
uses texts inspired by her writing to immerse the audience in the surreal landscapes of Isabelle's life; she describes the death of her family, the thrill of her arrival in Africa, her tentative joy at falling in love, the elation of self-discovery and the mystery of death.Composer's Note:
In 2004, within hours of picking up a copy of her journals in a Boston bookstore, I officially became obsessed with Isabelle Eberhardt's strange and moving life story. Within two weeks I had read everything she had ever written and nearly everything written about her, but despite my compulsive reading habits, I still had more questions than answers.
I was struck by the universal themes of her story – how much her struggles, her questions, her passions, mirrored those of women throughout the 20th and 21st century. Isabelle made a great effort to define herself as an independent woman under extreme circumstances. She dressed as a man, seeing this as the only way to move freely and live the life of her choice. She let herself fall deeply in love but struggled to maintain her independent lifestyle.
I knew immediately that I wanted to create a large-scale work about Isabelle, and I knew that I wanted it to be more of a personal response to her life than a detailed retelling of her story. I needed to start answering my own questions, imagining how she felt, filling in the spaces between journal entries and exploring the universality that make her story so vibrant and relevant to me over one hundred years after her death.
In 2007, three years after discovering Isabelle, I began work on the libretto for Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt
, pulling phrases and ideas from her journals and creating singable texts that, over the following year, I set to music. Working in response to my score, Stephen Taylor started to create films using archival footage from the early 20th century, generating a collection of images that went beyond a mere depiction of Isabelle's story to reflect the emotional themes of each section. Early in 2009 Steve and I began our collaboration with director Gia Forakis, who worked with us to stage the work and bring together all the elements of the project.
I wrote this work for NOW Ensemble and Abigail Fischer, musicians whose virtuosic technique and adventurous spirit made them an ideal choice for what I envisioned.
- Missy Mazzoli
Missy Mazzoli's opera Song From the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, in its world-premiere engagement at The Kitchen, was also centered on a very potent singer, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, whose throbbing low register and open-hearted performing style reminded me of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The 75-minute opera is based on the journals of a very young Swiss woman who, at the turn of the 20th century, traveled to Algeria dressed as a man, joined a Sufi sect, took a lover, and died in a flood. Librettist Royce Vavrek drew the text from those journals, but narrative is not really the opera's point; rather, the piece is an exploration of a woman's liberation through her discovery of religious and erotic ecstasy.
Song From the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths Of Isabelle Eberhardt
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.The music skillfully evoked that passion through minimalist-style repetition, haunting melody, rhythmic variety, slowly building intensity and the deployment of the distinctive timbres of five instruments (piano, bass, electric guitar, clarinet and flute). A chorus of five provided depth and contrast, and recorded vocals and sound effects, such as the scratchy noises of old records, gave a further aural overlay. Director Gia Forakis's ingenious multimedia staging was built on stylized gesture, incorporating soft-focus black-and-white films by Stephen Taylor that suggested the inner and outer lives of the protagonist without being prescriptive. Zane Pihlström did the simple scenic design of scrims, some of which looked like desert tents, and sand; Alixandra Englund created the costumes, and Scott Bolman the lighting. Steven Osgood conducted the terrific NOW Ensemble musicians, visible behind a scrim at the rear of the stage.
Together, these elements created a world. Take the penultimate scene, in which Isabelle's lover leaves her. The text ("How quickly love evaporates, leaving me a desert") was reflected in the film images of closing flowers and voiced by the keening of the double bass in its highest register, backed by the guitar's simple heartbeat of a rhythm and Ms. Fischer's soaring anguish. It was both powerful and new.
Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, 28/02/2012
The philosopher Catherine Clément called opera a “spectacle thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character.” Critics of her views counter that men in opera don’t always have it any easier—think Verdi’s Macbeth or Wagner’s Tristan—and that the form’s supposed victims are portrayed by divas who rise in glory to sing again.
As revivified in composer Missy Mazzoli’s enthralling Song from the Uproar, Isabelle Eberhardt is no victim. Yes, the historic Isabelle died in 1904 at age 27, but the Swiss explorer crammed several lives into those scant three decades. She dressed as a man, traveled throughout North Africa, joined a Sufi brotherhood, survived attempted murder, married an Algerian soldier, and wrote books and a journal recovered from the flood that killed her.
“I’ll pick out my own song” Isabelle declares, and at one point she actually dismisses the pianist and takes charge of the music herself. Gracefully androgynous, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer makes for a spellbinding heroine. Her throbbing, claret voice turns raw with pain against the blistering sound of the electric guitar when she learns of her husband’s betrayal, and her face glows from within as she hails the “blanket of blazing stars” ready to welcome her in death.
Missy Mazzoli’s kaleidoscopic score begins with static and a metallic shudder, and embraces slithering cello lines for Isabelle’s erotic reveries and ghostly, echoing voices as she wanders the desert, “the one most loved.” A five-person chorus depicts Bedouins, Isabelle’s family and even aspects of herself, as if the life force within her were more than one body could contain.
The NOW Ensemble under Steven Osgood plays splendidly. Stephen Taylor’s videos—vintage footage of dunes and waves, flowers blooming and shriveling—with projection design by S. Katy Tucker add layers of poetry to director Gia Forakis’s fluid, gently hieratic choreography. Zane Pihlstrom’s spare set, Alixandra Englund’s elegant costumes and Scott Bolman’s lighting all contribute to the magic of this extraordinary piece, a paean to a woman whose indomitable spirit sings on, even in death.
Marion Lignana Rosenberg , Time Out New York, 28/02/2012
"But in Song From the Uproar — The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, which had its full-length premiere at the Kitchen on Friday night, the composer Missy Mazzoli adopted a suitably idiosyncratic approach. Recounting key moments from Eberhardt’s life in a 75-minute sequence of dreamy vignettes linked by electronic segues that crackled like ancient shortwave, Ms. Mazzoli and her collaborators fashioned an earnest, enveloping meditation that invited individual interpretation.
Strengths evident in a 2009 workshop performance — Ms. Mazzoli’s shimmering, surging post-Minimalist flow; Stephen Taylor’s haunting manipulation of archival film; alert playing by the Now Ensemble; and the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer as a riveting protagonist — remained, enhanced by Alixandra Englund’s handsome period costumes and fresh scenes of druggy torpor and religious fervor. A five-member chorus added jazzy close harmonies and handled the director Gia Forakis’s dancelike blocking efficiently.
Some aspects of the staging still had a slightly homespun charm, as when a hookah descended from the rafters at the jerky pace of a stagehand’s exertions. But in the emotional efficacy and irresistible magnetism of Ms. Fischer’s performance and in the electric surge of Ms. Mazzoli’s score you felt the joy, risk and limitless potential of free spirits unbound."
Steve Smith, The New York Times, 27/02/2012