Album: Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (2012)
Artist: Chamber opera by Missy Mazzoli; libretto by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek
?Every perfect life is a parable invented by God.?
The Joy and Discontent of a Holy Nomad
In 1904 a lovely young Swiss aristocrat, Isabelle Eberhardt, rents a house where she waits for her husband’s return after a long absence. She’s been travelling through the Algerian desert on horseback for years?dressed as a man, helping the Algerians in their fight against French colonial rule, and writing journals, short stories, and articles. It begins to rain.
A full century later, New York composer Missy Mazzoli opens one of Isabelle’s journals in a Boston bookstore and immediately embarks on a journey of intellectual obsession, devouring every one of Eberhardt’s writings within weeks. Soon she finds herself trying to envisage this woman’s remarkable experiences and vision as a musical work.
Mazzoli, admittedly heavily influenced by the romantics, could not have chosen a more romantic subject; Eberhardt was the illegitimate daughter of her siblings? tutor, and so suffered a kind of disenfranchisement from an early age. While visiting Algeria to try to see her half-brother, she and her mother both converted to Islam.
A film made about Isabelle (Isabelle Eberhardt) in 1991 implies that she dressed like a man in order to move more freely within Islamic Algeria, but Isabelle had actually begun dressing as a male from childhood to escape the suffocating strictures of 19th-century European society.
One wonders how, with those delicate features, she managed to convince anyone she was a man. But she pulled it off, and even ended up joining a secret Sufi brotherhood.
The Sufi are a mystical Islamic sect founded almost entirely on the writings of Rumi. The focus of their worship is to develop a profound awareness of the presence of God, deliberately provoking trance states and producing art and music reflecting their ecstasy.
This preoccupation with the transcendent was very attractive to a young woman whose mother, father, and brother had all died within a short period. As with Edgar Allan Poe, a surfeit of firsthand experience with death exacerbated a natural sensitivity and gave impetus to an already single-minded creative effort.
Eberhardt produced a small collection of journals, essays, and short stories in her short life. Her writings are at times pedestrian and at other times profoundly vivid and insightful. Suffering often forces souls to clap shut or become bitter, but Isabelle remained very much steeped in life, as is witnessed by her political engagement and her deep romantic attachment to her Algerian husband.
Her life has great relevance to the postmodern artist who recognizes no limits but those imposed by her own inner convictions. Eberhardt turned her personal dilemma into a compassionate response to other oppressed peoples and a simultaneous search for religious and erotic ecstasy. After hearing this opera, one might say the two activities are one and the same.
The opera is one long crisis, one great crescendo that never breaks, less a story than an exploration of Eberhardt’s maverick lifestyle. The music in this opera carries the great dissonance, minor sombreness, and emotive shrieking of many modern operas, keeping it from being perhaps the most apt sound to unwind to, but its quality, inventiveness, depth, variety, and intensity is phenomenal.
Mazzoli has done an amazing job of capturing the existential angst of a soul battering with all its might against the bars of its cage before finally flying free; Isabelle’s husband finally arrives, but the house, made of clay, collapses in a flood shortly after their reunion, killing her and almost killing him.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.