See photo highlights from the Harriet’s Spirit Hands-On-Opera Workshop below.

In May, Opera Parallèle continued the development of Harriet’s Spirit, a new opera inspired by the life of American abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman. An OP Hands-On-Opera commission initiated in 2018 features music by Bay Area jazz composer Marcus Shelby and a libretto by Roma Olvera.

Building on the success of the first version of Harriet’s Spirit, Shelby expanded the composition, adding a new aria and orchestrating it to an extended, more developed score for eleven musicians, a wonderful addition to the canon of family operas.

The creative team, including Shelby, Olvera, Conductor Nicole Paiement, Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel, and Assistant Conductor Jaymes Kirksey, came together with the singers and orchestral players at the Paul Dresher studios with Dramaturg L. Peter Callender and Creative Contributor Denise Young Smith joining via Zoom, for two days of extensive work on the newly orchestrated opera.

Among the singers reprising their roles from 2018 are Tiffany Austin as Harriet Tubman and Christabel Nunoo as Modesty, a middle school girl who triumphs over the challenges of adolescence with Civil War-era legend Harriet Tubman as her role model and spirit guide.

An upcoming production of Harriet’s Spirit is planned following the success of the workshop.

Meet Bradley Kynard, soloist, Montgomery and The Janitor

Tell us what your involvement was in Harriet’s Spirit workshop.

My initial introduction to Opera Parallèle occurred in 2016 when I was hired to sing in their groundbreaking opera Champion. I knew from that experience that OP was a company that I would love to work with again. I went on to sing in OP’s productions of Xochitl and the Flowers and Trouble in Tahiti. When the invitation came to collaborate in Harriet’s Spirit, there was no question. Initially, I was brought on to sing the part of Montgomery in a scene with Harriet Tubman. Later, when asked to sing a second role, I was happy to oblige. This new character, The Janitor, has a fantastic aria.

Tell us about your experience working on Harriet’s Spirit workshop.

Due to the rigorous Covid-19 restrictions and protocols, I was concerned that this experience wouldn’t be as fulfilling as those in the past. Thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, the protocols made it much easier to relax and participate in the music-making process. When learning a role, you read the complete story, study your part, and put your interpretation into the notes. Some of that usually goes out the window when you hear the part in context and hear the full orchestration. This music was unlike much of what I’d performed in the past. It was so inventive in the way the notes shaped the character. Much of the work was already done for me. I hadn’t encountered these types of harmonies before. Mr. Shelby’s music fell easily to my ear in a uniquely unexpected yet pleasing way. As usual, the OP staff was professional and supportive, which made our jobs as artists a joy.

What did you take away from this experience? 

The power of music is often overlooked or misunderstood. I’ve been in many operas, and rarely, with the exception of modern opera, do they address topics that I have a personal connection to or are familiar to me. For instance, I’ve never been a person in the line of succession to the throne or been betrayed by a confidant; however, I am an African American male who knows our country’s history and have read many accounts of the life of Harriet Tubman. In the case of Harriet’s Spirit, I immediately had a connection to the subject matter. I encountered something that I rarely experience – an immediate connection to the text. After reading the score, I felt I already knew the characters and how I wanted them to feel and speak. I remained open to the notes from the creative staff, but it was great to have my own ideas secured when I arrived.

During the workshop, I experienced what I think all artists want to experience – artistic freedom and understanding. Further, the best music and roles teach you something or give you further insight into the human experience. This was that kind of experience. I can’t wait to share it with a live audience.

Meet Assistant Conductor Jaymes Kirksey

Tell us what your involvement was in the Harriet’s Spirit workshop.

I was asked by OP General and Artistic Director Nicole Paiement to assist her in the two-day workshop of Harriet’s Spirit. I conducted several movements of the opera. I also provided/curated notes between the composer Marcus Shelby and Nicole to be used in the final drafts of the project.

Tell us about your experience working on Harriet’s Spirit workshop.

I’ve played numerous premieres and repertoire under Nicole’s baton. This was the first encounter that she observed me as a conductor (it was a good one). I learned so much of what goes on to premiere an opera/orchestra. It’s not every day that conductors, especially young conductors, get professional exposure like this.

When conducting old works like Beethoven, Mahler, Verdi, a conductor can do what he wants within the rules. Having Marcus behind me was a fun type of nervousness and a great experience. He knew every note he had written down all the way to the syncopation of notes in the fastest of sections which allowed me to exercise my skills in helping the orchestra do precisely what the composer wanted.

What did you take away from this experience? 

Studying this score at home and having it come alive in person assured me of how great this work really is. The story is definitely one that will inspire anyone! I’m looking forward to working with Nicole, Jacques, Marcus, and the entire OP staff more in the future, and thank them for having me on board.

Photos by Daniel Harvey. (Click on the + sign to enlarge the photo)