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

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has made a name for herself appearing with such high-profile artists as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Tia and her quartet performed music from her CD “Angelic Warrior” on our latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."