SUNY-New Paltz professor to premiere new opera about Harriet Tubman

Uncredited woodcut from Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah H. Bradford.

With the growth of interest in heritage tourism, one hears more and more these days about sites in the Hudson Valley that were stops on the Underground Railroad. Although Sojourner Truth is becoming well-established as a local heroine in the public consciousness, we don’t usually associate the great liberator Harriet Tubman with this area. But in fact, from the age of 39 until her death in 1913, Tubman’s home was not so far away: in Auburn, New York, up in the Finger Lakes. It was a refuge for members of her family and other blacks whom she had helped escape from slavery in Maryland.

Nkeiru Okoye, a composer and teacher of Nigerian extraction who mostly grew up on Long Island and recently relocated to our region to join the Music faculty at SUNY-New Paltz, started taking a serious interest in Tubman’s life story while living in the Baltimore area about nine years ago. It was just around the time that a couple of new biographies of the abolitionist icon came out, providing serious fodder for Okoye’s research.

She started composing an oratorio about Tubman, but it kept expanding in scope until it became a full-fledged opera. Under the umbrella of the Brooklyn-based not-for-profit arts organization American Opera Projects, Okoye was awarded a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in May 2012 to complete and begin performing the work, titled Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom.

Written in two acts for five lead roles (soprano, soubrette, contralto, tenor and bass/baritone) and five to ten supporting roles, Harriet Tubman focuses on the family relationships of Tubman – born Araminta Harriet Ross – as a girl and young woman, particularly her close bond with her younger sister Rachel. Her parents and fiancé are also major characters. Supporting characters including Abolitionists, runaways, slaveowners and slavecatchers are introduced as the story follows Tubman into her years of involvement with the Underground Railroad.

An Oberlin Conservatory of Music graduate with a doctorate in Music Theory and Composition from Rutgers, Okoye first completed a slimmed-down version of the opera for a smaller vocal ensemble, titled Songs of Harriet Tubman, which has already been performed at a number of venues. The songs reflect the influences of classical music, Americana, jazz and blues as well as spirituals on Okoye’s style of composition.

The new full-length opera will be officially unveiled this June at the fourth annual Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference in Cambridge, Maryland, where last year Okoye delivered the conference’s keynote address. Following the premiere, some 20 performances of the full opera are planned for the rest of 2013. There’s no word yet on performances in the mid-Hudson region, but keep your eyes on Okoye’s website for updates:

Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom by Nkeiru Okoye;




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