Acclaimed Chamber Opera Makes Its Houston Debut

Missy Mazzoli's Song from the Uproar was inspired by the life of fin-de-siècle Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt.

By Michael Hardy March 17, 2015

Missy Mazzoli

Image: S. Taylor

Missy Mazzoli's Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt
March 20 at 7:30 
Zilkha Hall
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St.

The contemporary composer Missy Mazzoli was browsing through a Boston bookstore, in 2004, when she stumbled upon the recently republished journals of Isabelle Eberhardt, the fin-de-siècle Swiss explorer and writer who died in a flash flood in Algeria in 1904, at the age of 27. The illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic Russian émigrée, Eberhardt was one of the most unconventional women of her time, experimenting with drugs and sex, dressing as a man, and ultimately moving to Algeria and converting to Islam.

Mazzoli became fascinated with Eberhardt, and ultimately decided to write a chamber opera based on the journals, which were originally written in Russian, French, and Arabic. "The first thing that struck me was just the strangeness and directness of the language," Mazzoli said. "I had read a lot of travel diaries from the early 20th century, and there was always this distance, as if they were writing about the culture from the outside. And Isabelle really immersed herself in the culture of North Africa and embraced it."

Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, featuring mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer singing the title role, debuted in New York in 2012 to rave reviews from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. "In the electric surge of Ms. Mazzoli’s score you felt the joy, risk and limitless potential of free sprits unbound," wrote the Times’s Steve Smith; Time Out New York named the opera the third best classical music concert of the year, and a recording was quickly issued by New Amsterdam Records.

The opera’s success catapulted Mazzoli into the front ranks of young American composers. She’s currently a composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia and the Gotham Chamber Opera, and in May will release a new album of music with her chamber music ensemble–slash–rock band Victoire. This Friday, Houston audiences will get a chance to see her signature work for themselves when Song from the Uproar makes its regional debut at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, again featuring Fischer—a native Houstonian—in the title role.    

Another Houstonian involved in the production is Stephen Taylor, who created the video projections that play behind the singers. During the performance, Mazzoli will be stationed beside Taylor, helping him sync the video to the music. As with all operas, creating Song from the Uproar was an intensely collaborative project, involving, in addition to Taylor and Fischer, librettist Royce Vavrek (who based the libretto on Eberhardt’s journals), stage director Gia Forakis, and the musicians of the NOW Ensemble, who will be joined for the Houston performance by five members of the Houston Chamber Choir.

As for the music itself, Mazzoli said she was inspired by the turbulence of Eberhardt’s life and death. "There’s a sort of wildness to the score, and there’s a lot of layers. One of them is electronic—I sampled a lot of different voices, and added effects to them. So there’s a sort of ghostly layer of memory that runs through the whole piece."

The fact that she began work on the project when she was 27—the age at which Eberhardt died—was not lost on Mazzoli. "That was significant for me. I thought, wow, this woman lived this packed, intensely operatic life before she was my age. I wanted to pick up on her story and present it to the world in a way that she wasn’t able to do because she died."

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