Harriet’s Spirit is a new opera by composer Marcus Shelby and lyricist Roma Olvera, having its first performance tomorrow night. It’s part of Opera Parallèle‘s Hands-on-Opera program, which commissions new works to be performed with professional singers joining schoolkids. The plot tells the story of Harriet Tubman while also using her example as a way to confront bullying.
There’s more information about the performances at Opera Parallèle‘s website.
Ten years ago, Marcus Shelby was asked to be a teaching artist at Rooftop Alternative School, to work with the kids on a curriculum about Harriet Tubman. He visited each classroom twice, and gave musical performances with jazz trios and his big band. For several years thereafter, he took the same approach with other topics. After he worked with OP on Terence Blanchard’s Champion two years ago, Roma Olvera asked Shelby if he’d like to write a work for their program. “I had never written an opera before, but I will never say no to a musical challenge.” Instead of just focusing on the historical Tubman, the libretto brings the story directly to the intended audience. “We knew middle school was going to be our audience,” Olvera says. “So we’ve married the story of rising up against bullying with the historical strength of Harriet Tubman.” Director Erin Neff explains: “The opera opens with Modesty, a middle school girl who’s written a book report, very proudly, about Harriet Tubman, and she’s walking home from school one day, and she experiences some aggression from bullies. And she falls down and hits her head. When she comes to, Harriet Tubman has appeared in full historical costume… It’s only Modesty who is seeing Harriet Tubman and getting these life messages on how to deal with these moments, and what kind of decisions you can make in the face of anger, in the face of bullying, in the face of fear. That you do have a choice, and you have strength.”