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Women shine in Pittsburgh production of an opera about a famed female adventurer

Demaskus Theater rehearses "Song from the Uproar."
Tara Antill
Demaskus Theater Collective
Demaskus Theater rehearses "Song from the Uproar."

Protagonist, message and means of production all resonate to a unifying theme in the Pittsburgh premiere of the opera “Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt.”

This 2012 chamber opera about a storied woman adventurer celebrates the life of someone who defied society’s gendered roles. And it’s being produced and performed by a cast and crew composed entirely of women.

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The co-presentation by Demaskus Theater Collective and Kassia Ensemble receives two performances Sat., May 21, at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The show boasts the first two Black women to sing the lead role of Eberhardt. It’s also the premiere production to come out of the Center’s B.U.I.L.D program, designed to help Black artists and Black-led arts groups develop capacity.

“This truly is a story that highlights cultural pieces and legacies and a perspective that I don’t think people have seen in opera in some time, if ever,” said Shaunda McDill, who heads Demaskus.

The project was sparked by Amanda Van Story, a Black, classically trained, Pittsburgh-based soprano who was having trouble finding singing jobs. In Pittsburgh, as elsewhere, “Women, and especially women of color and other intersections, are virtually locked out,” she said.

“I decided I could either continue to beat my head against a concrete ceiling, or as some mentors of mine … said, ‘You’re going to have to really consider creating our own opportunities at some point,’” said Van Story.

Van Story was taken with “Song from the Uproar,” in which composer Missy Mazzoli and her co-librettist, Royce Vavrek, evoke the life of Eberhardt. Around 1900, as a young woman of the supposedly straight-laced Victorian era, the multilingual Swiss-born writer relocated to Algeria, where she dressed as a man, converted to Islam, survived assassination attempts and more before perishing in a flash flood in 1904.

“You’re very easily able to apply it to, for me, the life of any woman who has dared to live life by her own standards and by her own vision,” said Van Story. “I feel like so many women can really see themselves in Isabel, women who dare to be courageous, the ups and the downs.”

Four years ago, Van Story pitched the project to Demaskus and became a collective member. The project simmered, but last year, Demaskus became one of the two inaugural B.U.I.L.D. artists in residence. That brought funding, rehearsal space, technical support, and professional development that let the project move forward.

The ensemble cast of eight is led by sopranos Van Story and Zuly Inirio, who will each be featured in one of the two performances. (Van Story might have done both had she not given birth in April, she said.)

Demaskus’ collaborator is Kassia Ensemble, a nonprofit chamber-music group composed entirely of women. The direction is by Risikat “Kat” Okedyi, and the conductor is Fernanda Lastra, who also serves as musical director. The instrumentation consists of a string quintet with harp and clarinet. The one-act, 75-minute opera features projected video by Pittsburgh-based artist Alisha Wormsley.

“Song from the Uproar” will be preceded by the premiere of “Kassia” by Judith Shatin. It’s a musical video “linked to the history of opera in Pittsburgh” and serving an introduction to “Uproar.”

Van Story said the development and rehearsal of the all-female production has been something of a revelation for a cast and crew inured to male leadership in the field. “They don’t feel the normal tension and anxiety that typically comes with working in theater for with opera,” she said.

In terms of both the themes of the show and the opportunities it provides, she said, “Basically, this is a social-justice project because it’s very intentionally shining a light on gender-based disparities in opera, classical music and the theater arts.”

Inirio will sing the lead at the 2 p.m. show, and Van Story will sing at the 7 p.m. performance. Details are here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: