Song from the Uproar: An Interview with Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek.


Abigail Fischer and Now Ensemble and Aaron Roche performed SFTU at Le Poisson Rouge, Dec 2012

Song from the Uproar originally premiered at The Kitchen in Feb 2012 and was reprised at Le Poisson Rouge this past December with the NOW Ensemble and Abigail Fischer. Aaron Roche also performed and video was shown from Stephen Taylor. The narrative of SFTU revolves around Isabelle Eberhardt, a gender defying Swiss explorer and journalist who kept extensive diaries of her extraordinary lifestyle in the 1800s. In the early 1900s she moved to Algeria where she wore the garb of men and called herself, Si Mahmoud Essadi. She married an Algerian solider, and was eventually killed by a flood in 1904, after an early assassination attempt. Creator Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek were interviewed about the project below.


The 22: What in Isabelle’s character do you identify with? What originally made her unique to you?

Missy/Royce: I identified with her inner conflicts, with this feeling that she was caught between eastern and western culture, between her desire to be with her husband and her need to travel endlessly. At a time when most of what we do is shared and recorded through Facebook, Twitter, etc, I was attracted to the fact that we really don’t know that much about Isabelle. We are left to imagine how she felt while these very extreme things happened to her.

22: Do you know much about how Isabelle’s conversion to Sufism affected her during that era? Is this what lead to her attempted assassination?

M/R: I know that the Sufi sect she was a part of did not typically include women – she was only invited into the group because she chose to live as a man. It was in fact the event that led to her attempted assassination; because she was a European woman she was a very visible member of the sect, and became a target for rival Sufis.

22: In the film you repeat images of a little girl and her father (who appears and disappears) and of a girl swimming and/or drowning. Tell me what those symbolic elements represent to you.

M/R: The films were made by Stephen Taylor – the little girl and her father represent Isabelle and her father, and the water imagery represents the flood that will eventually take her life. To me, the water also represents her life, this force that swept her along down an untrodden path.

22: Tell me a little about your costume choices (which have evolved throughout the shows), particularly Isabelle.

M/R: The costumes were made by our designer Alixandra Englund in consultation with the director Gia Forakis. We wanted to show a mix of genders and also a mix of North African and European influences. The pants reflect what was worn by African men at the turn of the century. The entire opera is actually Isabelle’s memory of what happened, rather than what actually happened – it’s a subtle but important distinction. By placing the work in the sphere of memories and dreams, we opened up the story to ideas and styles that don’t necessarily reflect reality in an accurate way. Isabelle’s costume is a perfect example of that – it’s a sort of dreamy, mis-remembered version of something she would have actually worn.

22: Isabelle seems to have a real kinship with death in the piece, “death moves his hands through me again,” “death is my joy, my happiness,” tell me what you or Isabelle meant by these lines?

M/R: Isabelle’s relationship with death is complicated and fascinating. She wrote about death obsessively in her journals and contemplated suicide at one point, but claims to not fear death because of her Islamic faith. In reality I think she did fear death (she was found drowned in a flash flood with her arms raised over her head, as if fighting with the water) but more than that I think she feared being alone. When her family dies early in the opera she repeatedly sings “death moves his hands through me again”, and it is this pain that, in my interpretation, forces her to make the extreme choice of moving to North Africa to find a new life.

22: Through part of the opera, Isabelle is (quite enthusiastically) drinking from a bottle. Was she a big drinker?

M/R: Isabelle did enjoy her liquor and was a known smoker of kif, her liberal consumption of substances is widely discussed.

22: It’s particularly interesting that Isabelle was in a sense a political voice against french colonial rule, a dynamic that is relative today. It seemed her representation of  both sides allowed her acceptance into the culture, but also created a great distrust of her. Can you talk a little about this?

M/R: I feel that Isabelle was actually on whatever side would help her most at any given moment. Yes, she was for the most part  anti-colonial, but also worked for the French as a census-taker at one point. The impression I got was that she found more acceptance in North African culture than she did as a cross-dressing Arabic-speaking anarchist living in Geneva.

22: What appeals to you about turmoil, the “uproar” or Isabelle’s life? You seem to find both joy and sorrow in it, can you speak of both those elements?

M/R: Isabelle’s journals vacillate between supreme joy and a near-rock-bottom depression. We were really excited to create world that reflected these shifts in Isabelle’s outlook on life, which meant looking at things from both angles: how can so many elements of life cause great happiness and also suffocate you?

22: This piece, in my humble opinion, seems to be asking for interlocking narratives of other woman who broke through gender boundaries throughout centuries. If you were to do opera’s on female role models who might they be?

M/R: This is the first opera in a planned trilogy which will feature strong female protagonists of the 20th and 21st centuries. I will have more news as to the subjects of the 2nd and 3rd operas soon, but they are very much in the initial planning stages!

22: Tell me a little about your work with NOW ensemble and why you felt they were right for this piece?

M/R: I’ve been working with NOW Ensemble for the past five years, and have come to know those performers very well. I felt that the small size of their group, their diverse instrumentation, and their commitment to contemporary music made them a perfect match for this project. I also loved the fact that their ensemble had a piano and an electric guitar, instruments that I felt could anchor the music throughout the work, and could create a rich harmonic tapestry that I felt was necessary for the storyline. I wrote all of the music – the collaborative aspects pertained only to the interpretation of the work. I also worked extensively with the guitarist Mark Dancigers to work on the guitar effects (distortion, looping) for the work.

22: Tell me a little about working with Beth Morrison and how her choreography played a role in the piece?

M/R: Beth Morrison was actually the producer of the piece, the movement was developed by director Gia Forakis in collaboration with the singers through a methodology called “One Thought One Action” in which the text is broken down into micro-beats and gestures are created that become married to the linguistic units. Everything developed very organically, staging wise!

22: Tell me a little Abigail Fischer (Isabelle Eberhardt) and why you felt she was right for this piece?

M/R: I saw Abby perform in Nico Muhly’s piece “Elements of Style” and I was hooked. I could sense, even before talking to her, that she was a complete musician; she’s someone who is committed to understanding her roles in a profound way. She’s a cellist as well as a singer, and is a brilliant, inquisitive person outside of music. I knew I needed someone who could understand Isabelle’s dark side – someone who would be willing to read the journals, and someone who was willing to sound gritty and at times ugly, because that’s what the role demanded.

22: Why did you chose video to create a sense of atmosphere in a story that is meant to take place in the 1800s? Why did you chose to use pictures of more 1920-40s based families, what did they come to represent?

M/R: Here I’m speaking for Stephen Taylor, our filmmaker, but I’ll do my best! We wanted the films to reflect Isabelle’s memories and dreams, and didn’t want them to serve as simple background images within the set. Because we’re dealing with the language of mis-remembered events and surreal dreams, we did not feel bound to use footage from Isabelle’s lifetime. We instead chose to use film footage that gives the impression (to a 21st century audience) of “the past”, and settled on footage from the 30’s and 40’s. This choice also gave us a lot more variety when it comes to selecting footage, since there was very little film shot in the first few years of the 20th century.

22: In the end Isabelle is represented by a picture of a swimmer. Tell me a little about this interplay between the film footage and the character.  What moment does it signify for Isabelle?

M/R:The opera ends with Isabelle’s transformation (on film) from a drowning woman into a high-diver. The footage is turned upside-down so it looks as if she is diving into the sky. This image has many potential interpretations – at the most basic level it represents Isabelle’s death and her ascent into that unknown world. To me, it represents her willingness to rise above the uproar and release herself from her tumultuous life. This is a piece that constantly walks the line between ecstatic joy and a dark, unfathomable sorrow. The image of Isabelle as a diver represents this fine line more than any other image in the piece.

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