Missy Mazzoli, a 32-year-old composer from Brooklyn, says she never wanted to write an opera until she read the journals of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss adventurer from the turn of the 20th century. Oddly enough, Mazzoli first learned about Eberhardt while listening to NPR. Years later, she stumbled upon the explorer's journals in a bookstore.
"I knew from the second that I read the journals and felt I needed to make a piece about her that it had to be something big," Mazzoli told NPR's Audie Cornish. "Her story is so complicated and so strange that I wanted to create a world that the audience could walk into. And opera is that — you walk into a theater, and there's a set, there's projections, there's costumes."
Eberhardt was born in 1877 in Switzerland. At a very young age, she experienced the tragedy of having her mother, father and brother die within three years of each other. Soon after, at about age 20, she traveled to North Africa by herself, where she dressed as a man, joined an all-male Sufi sect, fell in and out of love with an Algerian soldier, and was drowned in a flash flood at the age of 27.
"The first point of her story that really grabbed on to me and said, 'Turn me into an opera,' is the fact that in this flood, all of her journals and writings were washed away. And her husband and other people had to pull the papers out of the water and dry them off in these big urns. That writing was later published as her journals and became the source of the [opera's] libretto. So I just love the idea of this opera that literally comes out of the flood."
Remixing The Idea Of Opera
In one sense, Mazzoli's opera, Song from the Uproar, is a far cry from Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. The orchestration alone reflects her agile, smaller-is-better approach. The handful of musicians include an electric guitarist, a few winds, double bass and Mazzoli's own sampling techniques inspired by DJs — heard effectively in the opera's "Interlude."
"What you're hearing is prerecorded vocals from another part of the opera, so in a sense it's like a remix, the way that a DJ would take a piece of music then pull out parts and loop them and put on reverb," Mazzoli explains.
"Electronics are a big part of the opera. I spent years, literally, inviting all the singers from the opera over to my living room, giving them a cup of tea and asking them to sing specific things into a microphone, and I would record them. I would take those audio samples and rework them back into the live performance."
Mazzoli is still figuring out what makes a good opera. But one crucial element, she says, is a connection to the story.
"One of the things that attracted me to [Isabelle's] story was all the ways that I felt it paralleled not only my life but the lives of lots of other people, particularly young women today. Isabelle didn't feel like she had any role models, she felt like she was carving her own path. I took great comfort from her words and her journals."
The DIY Aesthetic
Like Eberhardt, Mazzoli is carving her own path. In a landscape that is ever changing and ever challenging for today's composers, Mazzoli thrives on a kind of do-it-yourself aesthetic borrowed from the indie rock world. She's a composer who performs her own music in her own band. She helps run a new music festival, and she teaches, privately and on the Internet. She's lucky, she says, that she has commissions to help pay the bills.
"Because funding in the arts is so tricky and there's all these economic factors that we have to contend with a lot more these days, composers are really branching out," she says. "So you see much more of this eclectic way of living — composers who have their own ensemble, and perform and work for other composers, and run record labels."
The idea of the composer alone in his studio and cranking out masterpieces, mailing them away and never talking to anyone is an idea on its way out, Mazzoli believes. Still, it's a powerful image that holds sway over how people think of composers. But for Mazzoli, the reality could not be more different.
"Everything that I do feeds everything else," she says. "I don't think I could be an effective composer without being a teacher. And I don't think I would be an effective composer without also being a performer. So I'm juggling 10 things at once on any given day, but it just feels like my life. It's just what I do."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: And that is the work of composer Missy Mazzoli, though the word composer doesn't begin to describe her. Mazzoli has spent her relatively young career testing the boundaries of classical music. Composing, teaching and touring with the chamber group Victoire, which uses not only traditional strings but also keyboards and distorted guitars.
This is her latest effort and her first opera, called "Song from the Uproar." It's inspired by the short, tragic life of a 19th-century Swiss explorer named Isabelle Eberhardt.
MISSY MAZZOLI: At a very, very young age, she experienced some tragedies. Her mother, father and brother all died within three years of each other. And very soon after that, she traveled to North Africa by herself. And she dressed as a man. She joined a Sufi sect that typically excluded women. But because she was dressed as a man, they accepted her. She fell in love with an Algerian soldier. She fell out of love with an Algerian soldier. She had this very turbulent, very interesting life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ABIGAIL FISCHER: (Singing) How quickly love evaporates, leaving me a desert...
MAZZOLI: When she was 27, she tragically died in a flash flood. And in this flood, a lot of her journals and writings were washed away. And her husband and other people had to pull the papers out of the water and dry them off in these big urns. And so that writing is what became the source of the libretto. So I just loved the idea of this opera that literally comes out of the flood.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: What makes a good opera to you?
MAZZOLI: Well, I love a lot of opera from a huge span of time. You know, everything from Monteverdi to, you know, John Adams, his piece "Nixon in China," or Philip Glass, "Einstein on the Beach." These are stories that I feel are, in some ways, about my life. You know, they're about love and loss and frustration and confusion and the pain of being a human being. I feel whatever opera I write will have that sort of personal intimate quality to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: The story has these really lovely moments of atmospherics and electronic sounds. The "Interludes," for example.
CORNISH: Can you describe what's going on in this one?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERLUDE")
MAZZOLI: What you're hearing is a pre-recorded vocals from another part of the opera. So, in a sense, it's sort of like a remix the way that a DJ would, you know, take a piece of music and then sort of pull out parts and loop them and put on reverb. So we're hearing sort of this echoing voice of Isabelle Eberhardt that is in the theaters coming out of the speakers. No one is singing that. It's just a sort of washy, ghostly vocal. And on top of it, you have the clarinet player. And so electronics are a big part of the opera.
I mean, I spent years literally, you know, inviting all the singers from the opera over to my living room, giving them a cup of tea and then asking them to sing specific things into a microphone. And I would record them and...
CORNISH: Which is exactly how DJs do it.
MAZZOLI: Right. Right. You know, and I feel very close to that tradition. I have a lot of - drew a lot of inspiration from that. And I would take those audio samples and then rework them back into the live performance.
CORNISH: What are some of the ways that the landscape is changing for composers? How do you make a living these days?
MAZZOLI: For myself it's a huge combination of things. I'm lucky enough to have commissions from, you know, orchestras, from string quartets, from other ensembles, from soloists. That is a big part of my income. And I also do a lot of teaching. Privately out of my home, I teach composition and also via Skype for young students around the world.
CORNISH: You teach it online to them, basically?
MAZZOLI: Yeah. Exactly.
MAZZOLI: And I'm a performer. You know, I have my own ensemble, Victoire, and we travel around as a band.
CORNISH: Is that unusual? I mean, help us understand what the traditional path would be. What would be the fantasy path to being a successful composer 15 years ago?
MAZZOLI: Right. My sense is that it would be much more about getting these big commissions, you know, getting your New York Phil commission, getting an opera commission, these things that sort of come from one source.
And now, I think that because funding in the arts is so tricky, composers are really branching out. I think there was this idea in the past of the composer still as the solitary genius, which to me is the most out-of-date thing that you could ever think of. I mean, the idea of this composer alone in his studio just sort of cranking out masterpieces and then mailing them away and never talking to anyone.
MAZZOLI: And I think that that is such a powerful image, and it still has sway over how people think of composers. But the reality cannot be more different. I mean, you have to be incredibly social. You have to think on your feet. You have to be really innovative in how you make a living and find funding and get your own work out there.
CORNISH: The world you described sounds much closer to the kind of indie pop DIY ethics, I think, I hear for pop music.
MAZZOLI: Mm-hmm. Exactly. And my goal as a composer was always to take the best of all these genres, so to take the best things out of the pop and indie world and the best things out of the classical world. I recently played a concert in Detroit with my band, and it was like this sort of like the most DIY of DIY clubs. And we went on after midnight. And we were really nervous because we thought, OK, we're coming at these people with violins and clarinets. And it's very much composed classical music, even though it has keyboards and electronics and drumbeats and all these things that sort of put it more in a pop realm.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MAZZOLI: We just didn't know how people are going to react. And we were so overwhelmed and surprised by their positive reaction. And that's been my experience again and again and again.
CORNISH: Hearing you talk actually now, it makes a lot of sense why you would be attracted to Isabelle Eberhardt's story, frankly.
CORNISH: You're kind of carving your own path here.
MAZZOLI: I do feel that way. And that was one of the things that really attracted me to her story was all the ways that I felt that it paralleled not only my life but the lives of lots of young people, particularly young women today.
You know, Isabelle didn't feel that she had any role models. She struggled with the fact that, you know, she had this very independent lifestyle, but was very much in love with the man who became her husband. And how do you sort of reconcile that? And that's a very contemporary issue that many, you know, women I know have. And so it was sort of - it was very comforting, in a way, to approach the story and really go deep into it. I took great comfort from her words and her journals.
CORNISH: Well, Missy Mazzoli, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MAZZOLI: Thank you so much for having me.
CORNISH: Missy Mazzoli, her CD is "Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt." You can hear more of it at our website, nprmusic.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.