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Missy Mazzoli: A New Opera And New Attitude For Classical Music

As a young classical composer, Missy Mazzoli borrows music and business strategies from the indie rock world.
Stephen Taylor
As a young classical composer, Missy Mazzoli borrows music and business strategies from the indie rock world.

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."

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