“Harriet’s Spirit” rises in young voices

Once again Opera Parallèle, that unique and valuable company founded and directed by Artistic Director and Conductor Nicole Paiement and Creative Director Brian Staffenbiel, showed us the relevance of opera to contemporary life. Not through reworkings of traditional opera but through the active writing and producing of new opera.

For several years, Opera Parallèle has developed an educational program that offers multiple opportunities for school children – from attending rehearsals to performing opera. The most impressive and innovative of these is their Hands-On-Opera program, in which company staff and professionals partner with students in an intensive eight-week residency, during which the students experience the process of making opera.

Christabel Nunoo as Modesty and Tiffany Austin as Harriet Tubman in Opera Parallèle’s production of “Harriet’s Spirit.” Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.

This year the middle-school students of Rooftop Alternative School in San Francisco performed a world premiere production featuring an original score by Bay Area jazz great Marcus Shelby. The libretto by soprano Roma Olvera, who is the company’s Educational Director, tells the story of a middle-school girl, Modesty, and how, when inspired by Civil War legend Harriet Tubman, she is able to overcome deplorable acts of bullying and aggression by her schoolmates.

Harriet’s Spirit, a 45-minute opera, premiered this past weekend in three performances at Buriel Clay Theater in the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. There was much to praise about the production itself. Shelby’s jazzy and a bit smoky music, which radiated a classical beauty in the different blendings of its ensemble voices; the freshness and purity of the students’ choral work and their evident delight in their performance; classically trained singer and jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin’s stately portrayal of Tubman; the meltingly exquisite voice of soprano Christabel Nunoo, who sings the role of Modesty; the affable portrayal of Union General Montgomery by baritone Torlef Borsting in the reenactment of Tubman’s search for escaped slaves, and the poignancy of the subjects – both the horror of slavery and the cruelty of bullying, which both partake of the same terrible and inhuman impulse to use and degrade. Bullying strikes close to the heart of children, to their fears and insecurities. But as Nunoo pointed out after the performance, “bullying is not just a middle-school struggle.”

The students of Rooftop Alternative School in Opera Parallèle’s production of “Harriet’s Spirit.” Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.

In a remarkable post-performance conversation with the cast, Director Erin Neff talked about her memories of experiencing bullying as a child and how terrifying that was. She also talked about how difficult it was for the student performers to portray bullies, and to act cruelly to one another in a public platform. There is a pragmatic point in the opera’s story, however: it offers advice alongside Tubman’s role model of exemplary bravery. “How did you do it?” Modesty asks. “Never feel alone,” offers Tubman. Your friends and family are there, willing you to be strong.

Putting together an opera in eight weeks, even a 45-minute one, is a miracle of faith and hard work. The most surprising event in the residency for composer Shelby was the students’ trust in the process. He described the students surviving the repetitions of rehearsal, the demanding focus, the need to sit still and to work on moments in the opera out of context – all of which challenged them and which they faced with complete acceptance.

And clearly, this was a meaningful experience, something the cast of middle-school kids embraced. As one of them said, when thanking the adults in the creative team, “It was a really cool experience.”

– Jaime Robles