Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) was an explorer, nomad, journalist, novelist, passionate romantic, Sufi, and one of the most unique and unusual women of her era. At age twenty, after the death of her mother, brother and father, she left her life in Switzerland for a nomadic and unfettered existence in the deserts of North Africa. She traveled extensively through the desert on horseback, often dressed as a man, relentlessly documenting her travels through detailed journals. At age twenty-seven Isabelle drowned in a flash flood in the desert. Song from the Uproar uses texts inspired by her writing to immerse the audience in the surreal landscapes of Isabelle's life; she describes the death of her family, the thrill of her arrival in Africa, her tentative joy at falling in love, the elation of self-discovery and the mystery of death.
In 2004, within hours of picking up a copy of her journals in a Boston bookstore, I officially became obsessed with Isabelle Eberhardt's strange and moving life story. Within two weeks I had read everything she had ever written and nearly everything written about her, but despite my compulsive reading habits, I still had more questions than answers.
I was struck by the universal themes of her story – how much her struggles, her questions, her passions, mirrored those of women throughout the 20th and 21st century. Isabelle made a great effort to define herself as an independent woman under extreme circumstances. She dressed as a man, seeing this as the only way to move freely and live the life of her choice. She let herself fall deeply in love but struggled to maintain her independent lifestyle.
I knew immediately that I wanted to create a large-scale work about Isabelle, and I knew that I wanted it to be more of a personal response to her life than a detailed retelling of her story. I needed to start answering my own questions, imagining how she felt, filling in the spaces between journal entries and exploring the universality that make her story so vibrant and relevant to me over one hundred years after her death.
In 2007, three years after discovering Isabelle, I began work on the libretto for Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, pulling phrases and ideas from her journals and creating singable texts that, over the following year, I set to music. Working in response to my score, Stephen Taylor started to create films using archival footage from the early 20th century, generating a collection of images that went beyond a mere depiction of Isabelle's story to reflect the emotional themes of each section. Early in 2009 Steve and I began our collaboration with director Gia Forakis, who worked with us to stage the work and bring together all the elements of the project.
I wrote this work for NOW Ensemble and Abigail Fischer, musicians whose virtuosic technique and adventurous spirit made them an ideal choice for what I envisioned.
— Missy Mazzoli
- BBC Total Immersion: Missy Mazzoli
- 22nd January 2024
- BBC Symphony Orchestra hosts Missy Mazzoli for a full day of concerts and conversations