july 17, 18, 19 & 21 | 7:30 p.m.
Aronoff center | fifth third bank theater
special collaboration with concert:nova
Music by Missy Mazzoli
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
By Missy Mazzoli
“On days when I have no money I am a vagabond on the road, enjoying the reflections of gold and scarlet sunset on the white dunes. The grave alone can rob me of such wealth, not man. If I am allowed the time it takes to write the odd fragment of a description, it may even survive in the minds of some.” -Isabelle Eberhardt, 1901
In 2004, I picked up a copy of Isabelle Eberhardt’s journals in a Boston bookstore and opened it at random to the above passage. The fearlessness in these words (all the more bold coming from a Swiss woman in the Victorian era), the utter strangeness of the journals as a whole, and the raw candor of Isabelle’s voice captivated me that day, and went on to haunt me for years.
Our understanding of Isabelle Eberhardt’s life will always be incomplete, cobbled together from fragments of a journal pulled out of a flood, sporadic recollections from people who knew her or pretended to have known her, and the few articles and short stories she published. I felt that an opera about her life should be similarly fragmented—an evocation of her dreams and thoughts rather than a straightforward narrative. I began to imagine what was left unwritten in her journals, how it felt to wander alone through the desert dressed as a man, how it felt to be one of the only Europeans to witness Sufi religious ceremonies, and how it felt to fall deeply in love but struggle to maintain a fiercely independent lifestyle. I came to believe that a woman as progressive as Isabelle Eberhardt deserved a story unmoored from any specific period in history, a world where distorted guitars, stuttering electronic voices, and abstract films could find a home in her fantasies and dreams.
Without a role model, Isabelle Eberhardt forged a life unlike anyone else’s, and remained true to herself under unimaginably difficult circumstances. She has been alternately demonized and lionized in the 112 years that have passed since her death, but I feel that as a 21st-century audience we are finally equipped to understand the complexity and weight of her story.