Missy Mazzoli’s Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt has had several successful lives since beginning as a song cycle about a dozen years ago, then expanded to a fully staged opera (with a modest orchestra and an elaborate video element) which has been performed in New York in 2012 and Los Angeles last year, with a production coming up in Cincinnati. On Thursday night it played at the Gardner Museum under the auspices of Beth Morrison Projects in a chamber opera form, without sets or costumes, slightly abridged musically (two numbers from the CD original cast recording, totaling about 8 minutes, were not included), but with the video element and, most significantly, with Abigail Fischer, the remarkable mezzo-soprano for whose vocal and dramatic talents the work was originally conceived, both as song cycle and as opera.
The original song cycle and the opera treat the life and death of Isabelle Eberhardt, (1877-1904) a woman whose short but extraordinary life covered realms of experience scarcely known by a woman at the turn of the 20th century. She kept journals that recounted her experiences. After her tragic early death in a flash flood at the age of 27 (in 1904), her husband located the sodden journals. After they were dried out, they were published in book form. It was while browsing in a Boston bookstore in 2002 that composer Missy Mazzoli encountered the book and felt called upon to present Isabelle’s dramatic life in musical and later theatrical form. She herself created the songs for the original version from Isabelle’s memoirs. Later she worked with Royce Vavrek, an experienced opera librettist, to create an expanded libretto to make it a theater piece.
Eberhardt, born in Switzerland, became unmoored by the deaths of her parents and her brother when she was 20. She took up a nomadic existence in the Sahara Desert, often dressing as a man to avoid complications as a woman alone. She became a Sufi, married an Arab husband, kept detailed accounts of her experiences in her journals, and—as mentioned—died very young in a desert flash flood.
For the opera, the composer and librettist worked with a filmmaker, Stephen Taylor, who assembled a mosaic of visual images that sometimes seem simply realistic (ocean waves) but more often suggest flickering thoughts and memories in Isabelle’s mind. The images are all in black and white, and—since very little motion picture material exists from Isabelle’s time—mostly reflects images from a slightly later period. The visual images are often generic (flights of birds, for example), but during the performance, they sometimes appear backwards or upside down. One striking image that occurs in several forms is a closeup of a pen writing a letter—first with the image turned backwards so that the writing is reversed as in a mirror; at another time forward in the normal way; but mostly running backwards so the pen is unwriting the letter, suggesting memories that are lost or intentionally wiped from the mind.
The opera consists foremost of a challenging role for the mezzo-soprano who represents Isabelle. Abigail Fischer captures this role with astonishing force even though she barely moves—seated on a tall stool at first, occasionally standing or moving in its immediate vicinity, wrapping a shawl around her head like a burnoose worn by a desert nomad (suggesting with this simple image the masculine disguise), and once moving to the piano, sitting down on the bench with the pianist, and playing a melody as she sings. The vocal richness, covering a wide range in both pitch and intensity, focused the viewer’s attention on her throughout.
The remainder of the ensemble comprised five fine vocalists (sopranos Laura Intravia and Kelley Hollis, alto Heather Gallagher, tenor Jesse Christeson, and bass Ryne Cherry) functioning as a chorus, sometimes echoing Isabelle’s thoughts, sometimes advancing them. The small orchestra consisted of members of the Firebird Ensemble: Mark Dancigers, guitar; Scot Fitzsimmons, bass; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Aaron Likness, piano; and Jessi Rosinski, flute. Jeremy Gill conducted a tight, heads-up performance, which included matching recorded sounds—vocal, instrumental, and electronic—on the soundtrack of the film, which essentially determined the pace.
Missy Mazzoli’s sound world is colorful and approachable, with elements mixed from various sources including the drive of minimalism, the colors of pop, and (in this instance particularly) gestures that seem designed to evoke sonic traditions of north Africa. It is common for a section to begin with a single sustained note on, say, the clarinet, joined soon after by another single note—but pulsed rhythmically—on electric guitar, and so on, building up chords that change slowly one pitch at a time, offering bright, shimmering colors. The individual songs range from elegies and poignant laments to vigorous assertions of personality and energy, and each mood and character was superbly delineated by Abigail Fischer.
The lighting design by Ian King, sound engineering by Ryan Ainsworth, and video work by Eamonn Farrell all pleased.
The overall effect thoroughly satisfied and quite captivated. This shortened, simplified version made me hope to see the show in full-scale operatic dress.
See related interview here.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.