Missy Mazzoli Explores the Explorer


Missy Mazzoli (Stephen Taylor)

Missy Mazzoli will be performing with her band Victoire on Saturday at the Invisible Dog, 51 Bergen St., Brooklyn, 7 p.m..  Her opera, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, is available now on New Amsterdam Records.

When composer Missy Mazzoli visited a bookstore in Boston several years ago, she came across a book that contained the journals of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss explorer who traveled to North Africa. The story of Eberhardt’s life spoke to Mazzoli as an opera when she read the book. “I never wanted to write an opera before,” Mazzoli told me.  “I never thought about writing an opera before, but it was really this story that made me feel I had to bring this story to a wider audience.”

And that’s what Mazzoli did with Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, an opera that was performed at The Kitchen in Manhattan last February. Mazzoli wrote and performed the piece, with a libretto by Royce Vavkrek along with visuals by filmmaker Stephen Taylor. This past Tuesday, the music from the opera was released on CD.

Eberhardt is a curious historical figure: She was born in Switzerland to Russian parents in 1877–her father was an anarchist. Dressed like a man and well versed in Arabic, Eberhardt along with her mother went to North Africa where both of them adopted the Islamic faith. Following the deaths of her mother and several of her family members, Eberhardt became part of a Sufi sect and participated in the struggle against colonial French rule. She married an Algerian soldier and then later died in a desert flash flood on Oct. 21, 1904 shortly following a reunion with her husband after a period of separation.

In explaining what intrigued her about Eberhardt’s story, Mazzoli mentioned that the journals, which were written in Africa, are fragmented, and that Eberhardt only wrote when she felt like it–thus leaving a somewhat incomplete account.  “We don’t know what really happened to Isabelle Eberhardt , we don’t know the ins and outs of her everyday life,” Mazzoli explained. “We really don’t know how she felt about things. All we have is a scattered outline of a life that we get through the journals. I really wanted to have that freedom as a composer to be able to imagine the spaces between the lines and to imagine how she felt, and to sort of fill in the blanks in the journals with my own sort of creation. I didn’t want to feel like I had to stick to a reality all the time.”

The composer was also drawn to the personal nature of Eberhardt’s journals. “I was reading a lot of journals of explorers of the early 20th century,” Mazzoli said, “and they were all sort of very cold and distant and not personal. It was like this idea [of], ‘I’d like to experience the other,’ and yet you have 4pm tea and you bring 40 servants along with you–you’re not really immersed in your culture. And Isabelle really was. This seems to me such an incredibly brave act for anybody,  but particularly for a woman of that time, that I felt really close to her as a result.”

For Song from the Uproar, Mazzoli says that she wanted to create a world where Eberhardt could live in the music, and audience members would be drawn into her life, which made opera the perfect vehicle.

“I think the most important thing we wanted to communicate with all of this was her loneliness,” she said. “We’ve done a few different versions of the opera and some of them had a much larger cast. But I think Royce and I agreed that the form of the opera was really a monodrama. I think by casting it as just one soloist and to create music that sort of evoke the loneliness and isolation–that’s really the overarching theme of the piece.”

Mazzoli started out by writing some musical parts that were heavy and depressing until the opera’s director, Gia Forakis, suggested  to her to lighten it up, said Mazzoli. “We read a lot of biographies about Isabelle and realized she did have these moments of extreme joy that were really carefree where she is riding her horse in the desert and getting drunk with friends,” Mazzoli said. “And even though her life was ultimately tragic, there were these moments of levity and lightness. That’s where I brought in the drunken chanson where everybody is singing in French — it’s like a French drinking song. So there are moments of lightness in the dark overarching thing of the opera.”

Song from the Uproar is just the latest work for Mazzoli who at 32, has accomplished a lot in her rising career. Her music has been performed by various ensembles nationally including the New York City Opera, the American Composers Orchestra, and the Kronos Quartet; she was also the Albany Symphony’s Composer/Educator in residence.

Mazzoli, who is from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, started out listening to ‘80s and ‘90s pop while growing up, but says she fell in love with classical–particularly Beethoven–and played piano at a young age. She also mentions Phillip Glass, John Adams, David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe as influences. “These are people working in the theater and people who seemed to have really varied and exciting careers,” she said. “So that was another revelation for me. But I always still have the Romantics in my heart: Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert.”

In addition, Mazzoli is also part of a collective called Victoire that operates like a band. Does writing for Victoire different from her own efforts as a solo artist/composer? “A lot of it is the same. When I’m in the thick of writing a piece for either Victoire or for somebody else, I don’t really feel very different,” she said.  “But Victoire is different in that the instrumentation is unusual, it has two keyboards and infinite possibilities of using electronics and effects. And I know the women in the band really well—I’ve written hours of music for them. So that does change the way that I write. But in terms of the complexity of it or how difficult it is to play, the music of Victoire looks deceptively simple.”

Currently, there are no plans to bring Song from the Uproar on the road, although the opera is being pitched in the hopes of playing in other venues. Meanwhile, Mazzoli says she has caught the opera bug. “I’m actually working again with Royce Vavrek, the  librettist, on the next one. It’s in the very beginning stages so I can’t talk about anything specific. I did have this idea when I wrote Song from the Uproar to create a trilogy of operas about fascinating female characters of the 20th and 21st centuries. That’s a very broad topic…there’s a lot of possibilities there. I think that’s really what I would like to do.”

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