Composer Missy Mazzoli made her Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum debut with last Thursday’s Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, the latest production in the Gardner’s Beth Morrison Projects series (reviewed by BMInt here.) The opera draws from the real-life exploits of Eberhardt, who left the restrictive comforts of her life in Victorian-era Europe to explore North Africa.
In advance of the show, Kate Stringer had a chance to talk with the composer by phone from her home base of New York City.
KS: Song from the Uproar was both your first opera and your first collaboration with Beth Morrison, correct?
Can you tell me a little about collaborating with Beth on this production, and how the original production came about?
Sure. For the original 2009 production I had written about 30-minutes-worth of music and presented it at this Brooklyn venue called Galapagos. I showed Beth the footage and told her I wanted to expand it into a larger piece. She was really instrumental in shaping the original work—she brought on the director, the whole design team, and produced the original world premiere production, which is also the production that went to LA Opera last year, and has really launched the opera in a major way. We realized afterwards that that there’s a version we could do with less staging, that was more of a concert version, a sort of elaborate song cycle. That’s actually the version that we’ll present in Boston at the Gardner museum. It’s a piece that has a deep association with Beth, and I love that there are two versions being performed at the same time [the Gardner production and the fully staged Chicago Fringe Opera production which opened on October 28.] The Gardner production came up as part of Beth’s series with the museum, and I’m really excited that she wanted me to be a part of it.
What first drew you to the story of Isabelle Eberhardt?
I came across a new English translation of her journals in a Boston bookstore, actually—Trident Books on Newbury Street. I spent a lot of time there when I was in college at BU. So I discovered this version of her journals, and immediately knew that I had to create a piece about her, and after working on it for a while, realized that it would have to be something big, and so it grew into an opera.
Because it was your first opera, do you find there’s a sense of nostalgia in coming back to the piece?
Yeah, and since I wrote this piece I’ve learned a lot about opera so there are moments where I find things that I wouldn’t do again, but that came out in a very honest way. So, maybe there are things that came out in a bit of a naïve way, but there’s a kind of emotional directness to the piece that’s very close to my heart.
What drives you as an artist? Do you think there’s a through-line throughout your compositions?
There are through-lines that are emerging, the more that I write. I’m not really conscious of them or self-conscious about them. There are certain patterns in my work; in my dramatic writing, I’m drawn to complicated female characters, and specifically women in impossible situations. I see Isabelle Eberhardt as a woman in an impossible situation where she’s living in the tail end of the Victorian era, but has this irrepressible spirit and this individuality that she has to reconcile with the times she’s living in, as a woman. My latest opera, Breaking the Wave is also the story of a woman in an impossible situation. I sometimes feel that I’m writing one big piece, or that the tail end of one piece will seep into the beginning of another one. Some idea that I’ve touched upon in one work will make its way into another work. My harmonic language is built on a lot of different layers—I layer a lot of different things on top of each other to create a rich tapestry, and that’s something that comes up a lot in my work, but in different ways for each piece.
Since you talk about strong female characters, I have to ask—do you find, even in the 21st century, that you’ll come up against a certain amount of bias as a female composer in a traditionally male-dominated field?
(laughs) Oh yeah. I don’t think a woman in any field is completely exempt from that, and composition is no exception. It manifests itself in subtle and overt ways. In the ways that people talk to me about my work, I do feel that the questions I’m asked are colored by my gender. The worst manifestation of that is when I feel like I’m being denied the opportunity to talk about my work in a deep, meaningful way. With this recent production [of Breaking the Wave] I did in Philadelphia, there were a lot of questions about gender, and I was like, “Female composers want to talk about harmony and structure and form, and all these things that are fascinating to male composers, too.” But you know, the older I get the more power I have—and that’s true for any composer—the longer you stay in the field the more decisions you get to make, so I’m very happy that I’m the one who’s been picking my creative team, surrounding myself with my collaborators, and picking the producers that I want to work with. I pick people for whom gender is not an issue.
One last thing I feel I should say about gender is that with opera in particular, women are given few opportunities to create it. The statistics for women writing opera are so stark; often people will give men opportunities based on their potential, but for women, people want to see proof that you can do this. So if no one ever gives you your first opera commission, it’s very hard to break into that field. [Speaking of the attention surrounding Kaija Saariaho’s production of L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera this season, only the second Met production by a female composer and the first since 1903] I think it’s the starkest statistic, and it gets a lot of attention because they’re the biggest opera company in America, but I do think a lot of other companies wouldn’t fare better if you look at their history, too.
Do you find in your career as an educator, that young female composers want to work specifically with you because you’re leading the way, so to speak?
MM: Yeah, you know I get a lot of random calls, emails from young women reaching out to me in part because I am a women in a male-dominated field. That’s really heartening. I’m just starting this new collaboration with Face The Music at the Kaufman Music Center here in New York; it’s a new mentorship program that connects young female composers with prominent women in the field, providing lessons, guidance and support.
Can you talk to me about Abigail Fischer [who originated the role of Isabelle and stars in the Gardner production]?
She’s amazing. I wrote the piece specifically for her, for her voice, for her personality and for her vast intelligence. I wanted to work with her because I knew how great she was—she’s just the complete musician. I knew that she would embrace the role dramatically and musically and could handle a piece that really didn’t have a clear plot. There are these narrative through-lines, but for the most part it’s a very abstract piece.
It’s not always assumed that performers—and the stereotype unfortunately runs specifically to vocalists—will be up to the intellectual demands of a new piece. Do you look for performers who will be able to engage with you directly an intellectual level?
Definitely. My music is really hard, it needs people who have full commitment and who can handle it. So definitely, intelligence is a big part of it.
Can you tell about how you see your music fitting into the greater landscape of 21st century composition?
I could be the worst person to ask, because I’m so much inside of it. I’m influenced by a lot of different, diverse music. I would hope that my work isn’t easily classifiable. On any given day I’m listening to minimalism, then I’ll switch to, you know, Cherokee songs, then I’m listening to Georg Friedrich Haas, and all of that stuff is fair game to me. It all influences me a great deal. I don’t know—I think I get classified with minimalists, which is a bit of a misnomer, because even though my music is pulse-based, I’m very interested in complicated harmonies, and dissonance, too. Which is minimalism has, but it’s not a hallmark of the genre.
Do you think genre designations help or hinder people’s understandings of your work and the work of other opera composers?
It’s always reductive—we’re all trying to do something that’s never been heard before, I feel like every composer is doing that to some degree. So any label that you put on it is always in relationship to the past. I do think it’s limiting, but I understand that it’s useful. I don’t have a good alternative. I don’t really know how to describe my own work, which I recognize is problematic when it comes to marketing it.
When anyone approaches your work for the first time, is there anything specific that you hope they will take away from the experience?
I’m always searching for this combination of the familiar and the unexpected, so my ideal reaction is that they would think “Oh, that felt inevitable but also like something I’d never heard before.” I think in every piece, every moment, I’m trying to bring the listener in with materials that are familiar but presenting them in an entirely new light. I hope that there’s something that people can relate to on a very personal level, but also embrace the weirder aspects of it, too.