Opera Monodrama By Mazzoli Shows Promise In Concert

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mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and members of NOW Ensemble perform Missy Mazzoli's 'Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt' in Houston.  (Production photos by Pin Lim/Forest Photography)
Abigail Fischer performs Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Song from the Uproar’ in Houston with members of NOW Ensemble.
(Production photos by Pin Lim/Forest Photography)
By William Albright

HOUSTON ― It took nearly  a century for the dramatic story of Swiss-born writer, explorer, and nomad Isabelle Eberhardt to surface from the Algerian flood waters that ended her life in 1904, when she was only 27.  In 1991, she was the subject of an eponymous French movie starring Mathilda May and Peter O’Toole. In 2004, after reading the published  fragments of her journals that were rescued from the watery wreckage, New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli decided that the  story was operatic material. Workshopped in 2009, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, was premiered in 2012 at The Kitchen in New York City, and the same forces (mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, director Gia Forakis, and five members of the NOW Ensemble conducted by Steven Osgood) will perform the 70-minute multimedia work as part of Los Angeles Opera’s 2015–16 season.

Mezzo-soprano Fischer with conductor Steven Osgood.
Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer with conductor Steven Osgood.

A staging complete with supertitles would definitely enhance the work’s impact. But Mazzoli’s inventive score provided a fascinating musical experience all on its own on March 20, when Da Camera of Houston presented Fischer, Osgood, and three members of the original NOW Ensemble quintet in a concert version of the work in the downtown Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall.

Mazzoli is not the first female composer to operatically memorialize an unconventional female explorer. Launched by Houston Grand Opera in 1991, Meredith Monk’s Atlas was loosely based on the life and writings of Alexandra David-Néel (1868–1969), a Belgian-French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, and writer. Like David-Néel, Isabelle Eberhardt was a European woman whose spiritual quests sent her east. She embraced the Muslim faith, dressed as a man in Arab countries, and visited North Africa, India, Tibet, Japan, and Vietnam. 

In the libretto by Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, Eberhardt is devastated by the death of her father, mother, and brother — all within three years — and, at age 20, sets out to create an independent life for herself to “pick out my own song.” She goes to Algeria, where she often roams the desert alone, and is allowed to join a Sufi order despite its no-women-allowed policy. She falls in love with a possessive Algerian soldier who, insulted by her flirtations with other men, first demands a suicide pact, then leaves her for another woman. Drinking, drugs, and a murder attempt further blight a short life long darkened by thoughts of (and experiences with) death, and in the opera’s final scene she welcomes the flood that swallows her up.

The libretto, which borrows only a line or two from Eberhardt’s journals, is steeped in poetics and rhythms suggestive of Walt Whitman, and filmmaker Stephen Taylor’s projected video, a key element of the opera, is clearly influenced by Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic film Un chien andalou. Taylor’s flickering, quick-cut black-and-white montage, sometimes unspooling upside down or backwards as well as forwards, includes 1930s home movies, people diving and swimming underwater in slow motion, time-lapse photography of flowers opening and closing up again, and archival films of the desert, the ocean, and Algerian souks and nightclubs.

Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli. (Stephen S. Taylor)
Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli. (Stephen S. Taylor)

Under Osgood’s baton, five musicians played flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, string bass, electric guitar, and piano. Their amplified onstage work was augmented with some recorded sounds: ethereal offstage voices, crackly static reminiscent of 78-rpm shellac records, seagull cries, and ferry-boat creaks when Eberhardt sails to North Africa. Musical tension and drama were generated by spiky, driving rhythms (motoric, Prokofiev-style percussiveness from the piano was key here).

But there were lyrical passages of eerie, ethereal beauty as well. The intentionally distorted electric guitar generated jangly potency when the abandoned Eberhardt, seeking guidance from her religion, is told simply “It is written” in the Book of Fate. The guitar also laid down a funeral-march tick-tock under a menacingly slithery string bass line when her drunken lover suggested a suicide pact.

Fischer, her rich lyric mezzo enlivened by a shivery vibrato, sang with hauntingly intense expressivity and created a compelling character even without the help of the staging.  She even did a little keyboard work in the nightclub scene, where she and five members of the Houston Chamber Choir sang a bit of a French chanson.

Once dubbed Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart, Mazzoli has been making musical waves far beyond that borough. Currently composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera, and Music-Theatre Group, she has taught at Yale (her alma mater) and recently joined the Mannes College The New School for Music faculty. Her work has been performed by the Detroit Symphony, New York City Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet, and pianist Emanuel Ax.

A member of the New York Philharmonic will play her Dissolve, O My Heart for solo violin as part of the orchestra’s April 18 London concert. Mazzoli’s orchestral work River Rouge Transformation will be heard in San Diego and Phoenix in April, and Breaking the Waves, a chamber opera commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and based on Lars von Trier’s 1996 film, will have its premiere in 2016.

Song from the Uproar was presented by Da Camera of Houston as part of its season celebrating “the inventors and explorers who changed the course of history in music, science, and visual art.” Founded in 1987, the organization has a string of commissions and original productions to its credit. Specializing in melding music with art and literature, it has devised imaginative programs around composers contemporary with or influenced by Freud, Klimt, Kandinsky, Proust, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Picasso, Kafka, Mann, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Brodsky, and Akhmatova and commissioned works by more than two dozen composers, from Bruce Adolphe and Anthony Brandt to Charles Wuorinen and Eric Zivian.

Da Camera’s current season ends in May with “Sacred Visions,” a typical multimedia event featuring founder Sarah Rothenberg and her two-piano partner Marilyn Nonken, in Messaien’s Visions de l’Amen and Karen Lee Keating’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms for two pianos and women’s choir.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.