In 1904 the Swiss adventurer Isabelle Eberhardt (born 1877) drowned in a flash flood in the Sahara, only 27 years old. For four years she’d traversed the desert on horseback, dressed as a man, smoking, drinking, and even gaining access to a Sufi brotherhood. She documented her travels in journals and short stories, and her last writings had to be pulled from the water and dried. Eberhardt inspired many artists, such as Missy Mazzoli, whose opera Song from the Uproar was premiered at the Kitchen New York in February 2012, and released on cd eight months later by New Amsterdam.
The New York Times deems her “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York”; sequenza21.com calls her “one of the new wave of scarily smart young composers,” and Time Out New York pinpoints her as “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart.” At 32 Missy Mazzoli is highly successful, not only receiving public and critical acclaim, but being commissioned by leading ensembles and institutions. Among them Kronos Quartet, Carnegie Hall and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Currently she is composer in residence with Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music Theatre Group. Interesting credits for a composer who vowed never to write opera.
In an interview with Sascha Verner of Swiss National Radio and Television (SRF), Mazzoli said: “Opera is too complicated, too comprehensive, and you’re dependent on many others.” Her attitude changed abruptly when, thanks to a radio feature she got to know the diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt: “I knew immediately that I wanted to tell her story in some sort of musical expression, and that this had to be larger than a song cycle or an abstract piece for orchestra. The audience should be able to enter Isabelle’s world, a world that addresses several senses, and opera is best suited for this.”
Mazzoli wrote the first notes of Song from the Uproar, the lives and deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt when she was 27, coincidentally the same age at which her hero died. She wrote the libretto together with Royce Vavrek, delving abundantly in Eberhardt’s relentless and detailed chronicles of her life. In 1901 this adventurous and fearless woman married the Algerian soldier Slimene Emme, but their relationship was riddled with conflict and ended in his deserting her some three years later.
Mazzoli was struck by “the universality of Isabelle Eberhardt’s life story, her struggle for independence, her passions, all the contradictions that still determine the lives of many women today.” The composer zooms in on her despair and loneliness, her notion of being an outsider, and her fascination for death. She distilled this into a 75 minute opera for mezzo soprano, four singers, and small ensemble. Mazzoli’s admiration for Eberhardt is evident from her sweeping, pop-like melodies, interpreted with dramatic gusto by Abigail Fischer. Her solo part is embedded in repetitive, pulsating patterns from (bass)clarinet, double bass, electric guitar and flute/piccolo (Now Ensemble), barbershop like counterpoint from a five-piece choir, and electronic sound effects (though these aren’t mentioned in the cd-booklet).
The music is fresh and appealing, with hints of pop, modern classical, close harmony, minimalism, and electronic music. Mazzoli once said she feels a strong affinity with Schumann, though she grew up with the music of David Bowie, and this perhaps explains the accessibility and tonal focus of her music. When Sasha Verner asked her about style, Mazzoli answered: “That is a very tough question, which I’ve given a lot of thought. You can’t call my music indie-rock, but it is definitely independent classical music, so perhaps indie-classical would be the best option.” She’s right, in Song from the Uproar Mazzoli presents a shimmering, fascinating sound world that defies any regular label and speaks to public and critics alike.
Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music. She’s writing a biography of Reinbert de Leeuw, due for publication in 2013. Follow her on Twitter:@tdrks