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

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land In French Port

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching 'Fortress Europe' More

Video Westgate Mall Attack Survivors Confront Painful Memories

On anniversary of terror attack, survivors discuss how they have coped with trauma they experienced that day More

New Hints That Dark Matter Exists

New evidence from International Space Station hints at existence of dark matter and dark energy More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calaisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 19, 2014 5:04 PM
The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video CERN Accelerator Back in Business

The long upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider is over. The scientific instrument responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson -- the so-called "God particle" -- is being brought up to speed in time for this month's 60th anniversary of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN. Physicists hope the accelerator will help them uncover more secrets about the origins of the universe. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Trumpeter, percussionist and bandleader Etienne Charles was born in Trinidad and blends island rhythms with modern jazz. He and his stellar band perform a rich gumbo of jazz, calypso, reggae, and rock-steady that Charles calls “Creole Soul” on "The Hamilton Live."