News / Arts & Entertainment

Nigerian-American Turns Story of Harriet Tubman into Opera

Soprano Sumayya Ali as Harriet Tubman in an early American Opera Projects workshop. (Photo by Danielle Rivera for AOP)
Soprano Sumayya Ali as Harriet Tubman in an early American Opera Projects workshop. (Photo by Danielle Rivera for AOP)
Richard Paul
A new opera, written by a second-generation Nigerian-American, tells the story of Harriet Tubman, who, a century-and-a-half ago, escaped from slavery and led others to freedom.

When Nkeiru Okoye was a little girl, she spent a lot of time shuttling between the United States - her mother’s home country - and her father’s homeland, Nigeria.  While she found the culture shock disorienting, there were some things that remained constant.  For one,

“I don’t remember ever not knowing about Harriet Tubman," she said. "My mother used to love to read my sister and me stories, so my mother probably told me about her even before I learned about Harriet in school.”

Those early stories turned into a fascination that Okoye has now turned into a work of art.

Nigerian-American Turns Story of Harriet Tubman into Opera
Nigerian-American Turns Story of Harriet Tubman into Operai
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

"Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line To Freedom," is presented by the American Opera Projects.  The group received an award from America's National Endowment for the Arts to present works commemorating Tubman in this, the 100th anniversary of her death.  

x
Tubman was born into slavery in the state of Maryland around 1820. In 1849, a dozen years before the U.S. Civil War would be fought between northern and southern states over the question of slavery, Tubman escaped to the north and freedom.

“But she became famous because she went back down to rescue the rest of her family and anyone else that would go with her,” Okoye said.

Tubman helped arrange a series of safe houses and hiding places called The Underground Railroad, that escaped slaves used to reach freedom.  The people who ran the Railroad were called “conductors.”

“Harriet, who became known as ‘Moses,’ was the most famous conductor in the U.S,” said Okoye.

There are many tall tales about Tubman’s life.  And Okoye says she originally set out to add to that tradition.

“When I started this process, I wanted to pay tribute to Harriet Tubman by writing a highly fictionalized account of her,” she said.

Instead, she was inspired to dig into the true story of Tubman, rather than the legend.

“I spent three years getting to know Harriet's world,” she said.

Nkeiru Okoye (Courtesy of American Opera Projects)Nkeiru Okoye (Courtesy of American Opera Projects)
x
Nkeiru Okoye (Courtesy of American Opera Projects)
Nkeiru Okoye (Courtesy of American Opera Projects)
​Using that research, Okoye created what is called a “folk opera.”

“Which is slightly different from regular opera.  Most of the music in Harriet Tubman is rooted in traditional African-American folk idioms," she said. "So there are elements of gospel, jazz, blues, and then you hear a “field holler,” you hear ragtime, work songs and there are things that sound like spirituals throughout the opera.
    
Okoye’s attempt to be true to Tubman’s life is a key part of "When I Crossed That Line To Freedom."  

“The First Act is called ‘In slavery’ and the Second Act of the opera is called ‘In Freedom.’  I did that because I thought it was very important for listeners to experience Harriet as a full person," Okoye said.  "I think most people like to think of Harriet as a born liberator and it robs them of an important part of the story.  It’s kind of hero worship.  We don’t get that there’s this vulnerable person who’s there.  We don’t get the full picture.

"Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line To Freedom," is being performed in December, February and March in New York’s Fort Greene, the location of an actual Underground Railroad station.

You May Like

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Joe Taylor sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his distinction as New York’s “Subway Idol,” and how he beat out thousands for that title. Joe performs several songs from his new CD, “Anything’s Possible.”