“A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and unchartered places.” – Isabelle Eberhardt
In May 1897, an adventurous Swiss woman named Isabelle Eberhardt relocated to North Africa. There she went down a path of self-discovery very atypical for a woman of her time. Eberhardt lived her life to the fullest. She reveled in her time alone experiencing the desert just as much as she adored discussing Islam with members of the Sufi order she joined called Qadiriyaa.
Eberhardt also romanced and eventually married an Algerian soldier with whom she had a sometimes tender, sometimes tumultuous relationship. Tragically, her extraordinary life ended at the age of 27 when a flash flood roared through the Algerian province of Aïn Séfra. Yet, elements of Isabelle’s life have been immortalized in the words of her journals, which were published posthumously.
Eleven years ago, composer Missy Mazzoli picked up a copy of Isabelle’s journals in a Boston bookstore and read the following passage:
“On days when I have no money, I am a vagabond on the road, enjoying the reflections of gold and scarlet sunset on the white dunes. The grave alone can rob me of such wealth, not man. If I am allowed the time it takes to write the odd fragment of a description, it may even survive the minds of some.”
Eberhardt’s words stopped Mazzoli in her tracks and “haunted her for years.” This Thursday, Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar has its west coast premiere, brought to Los Angeles through a partnership between LA Opera and producer Beth Morrison Projects.
In her journals, Isabelle Eberhardt is very open about her life, passions, and emotional journey. She has a very modern voice, forging a path for herself in a world that strictly dictated women’s actions, dress code, even their very being. This openness is what struck Mazzoli the most. For the opera, she and her collaborators—including librettist Royce Vavrek and stage director Gia Forakis, and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer—strove to create a female protagonist that stayed true to Eberhardt. The resulting character, performed by Fischer, is complicated, multi-faceted, but also representative of a woman discovering her identity and religion. Eberhardt’s story in the opera does not focus solely on her romantic relationships; it’s a journey into Eberhardt’s mind in the final moments of her life.
What little we know of Isabelle Eberhardt’s life is fragmented. Therefore, rather than tackle Eberhardt’s life in linear fashion, Song from the Uproar tells Eberhardt’s story abstractly. The piece begins and ends with her death. Audience members witness Eberhardt’s memories as her life flashes before her eyes. It’s a kind of storytelling that fits well with the collaborative spirit of opera. Mazzoli loves the creative possibilities in theater and collaborating with various artists, including filmmaker Steven Taylor, with whom she worked on Song from the Uproar. In a non-linear fashion, audience members are privy to Eberhardt’s struggles as she strives to balance independence with the demands of a romantic relationship and her love of eastern culture with her western upbringing.
“I hope that Song from the Uproar will provide audience members with an immersive theatrical experience and that they will be interested in learning more about Isabelle,” Mazzoli says. Judging from the passion of the artists involved, it is likely her hopes will prove fruitful.