By Erin Fleming
“Life,” wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, “is not one damn thing after another, but rather the same damn thing, over and over.” Or was that Chekhov? Or Twain?
No matter; none of them could find a better subject to illustrate the point than Isabelle Eberhardt, whose short, implausibly eventful and extraordinarily google-worthy life forms the grain of sand around which Missy Mazzoli has composed a shining pearl of an opera, Song From The Uproar, playing now at Chicago Fringe Theatre – four performances only. And grain of sand is an especially appropriate image, as Eberhardt drowned in a desert.
Born in 1877 to exiled Russian Jews living in Geneva, Eberhardt frequently dressed as a boy (and later as a man) in a quest to enjoy greater freedoms than those typically granted to women of her time. When she was 19 years old, after losing both her parents and her brother within three years, she journeyed alone to Algeria where she converted to Islam, joined an all-male Sufi sect, roamed the desert on horseback and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. She survived an attempted assassination and a failed suicide pact with her lover, and died in a desert flash flood at the age of 27, leaving behind her journals.
Those journals went on to live out a dramatic arc of their own. Washed away in the flood, they had to be pulled out of the ruins, piece by piece, by Eberhardt’s husband and friends, dried out, re-ordered and compiled. It’s an epic story, literally emerging from the flood, that cries out for opera, if an atypical one.
With a hauntingly poetic libretto by Royce Vavrek, Mazzoli’s expressionistic piece depicts Eberhardt in all her iterations: hero/heroine, woman/man, Swiss writer, Muslim convert and African explorer. The structure follows the timeline of her history, divided into a seemingly sequential succession of her many Lives and Deaths, but the effect is actually to emphasize the cyclical nature of her journey – the nonlinear, over and over-ness of it all.
Conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy, Stage Director Amy Hutchison , Choreographer Kia Smith, and Scenic Designer Franny Mendes Levitin collaborate seamlessly to present a multi-media, multi-layered design perfectly suited to the story elements. The musicians (Tonia Miki, piano, Danny Cohen, electric guitar, Jennifer Shanahan, flute, Manuel Ramos, clarinet, Jackson Kidder, double bass) use electric and acoustic instruments to articulate an elusive score that is always moving, always changing – now classical, now utterly modern. Temples and cafes and deserts are conveyed through flowing fabric, flashes of light and projected images and words on a screen. Figures dance behind scrims and weave through the audience. Pre-recorded vocals and sound effects play over live rhythmic chanting. The small ensemble (Diana Stoic Richardson, soprano, Leigh Folta, soprano , Ashley Armstrong, mezzo-soprano Jonathan Zeng, tenor, Cody Jarrett, bass-baritone, Reesie Davis, dancer, Dedrick Gray, dancer) fills the hall with sounds of joy and sorrow, often moving as one, like waves lapping the sides of a ship, or patterns of nomadic animals. The choreography is stunning.
Anchoring all of it, and undaunted by its mythic parameters, is Lyric Mezzo Soprano Emma Sorenson’s sublime characterization. In her Chicago debut, Sorenson presents an inexhaustible and adventurous Isabelle, moving gracefully through recurring themes of loss and discovery. Her voice is strong, athletic and gorgeous.
Under Hutchison’s direction, it all comes together as an impossible cohesion of raw emotion and struggle. Like its protagonist, Song From the Uproar is difficult to describe easily or assign to one genre or style of performance, but it has certainly found an appropriate and nurturing home at Chicago Fringe Opera. See it while you can.
Chicago Fringe Opera presents “Song From the Uproar” at Mason Hall at Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, on Friday, Oct. 28 at 8:30pm (including post-show talkback with composer Missy Mazzoli); Sunday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 pm; Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 pm and Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 pm. More information and tickets are available here.