An Opera About Bullying Draws Advice from Harriet Tubman's Spirit

Tiffany Austin sings an excerpt from of 'Harriet's Spirit' for Opera Parallèle. (Photo: Courtesy of Opera Parallèle)

Opera Parallèle, the little San Francisco company, is presenting the world premiere of a new opera inspired by the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

It's an opera for kids, just 45 minutes long, created with eighth-grade students from San Francisco's Rooftop Alternative School. But adults might find the music and talented cast equally compelling.

Harriet's Spirit is about a modern-day middle schooler who learns to stand up to bullies with guidance from the ghost of Tubman. The music is by San Francisco composer, bassist and bandleader Marcus Shelby, with jazz (and now opera) singer Tiffany Austin playing the part of Tubman, and the full-voiced 23-year-old Christabel Nunoo as eighth grader Modesty.

Jazz bassist Marcus Shelby wrote the score for 'Harriet's Spirit,' a new opera for kids and adults
Jazz bassist Marcus Shelby wrote the score for 'Harriet's Spirit,' a new opera for kids and adults. (Photo: Courtesy of Marcus Shelby)

During a break at a recent rehearsal, I asked Austin how she approaches playing the iconic pre-Civil War abolitionist and Union spy. "I think about my grandmother," she said. "My grandmother came up in rural Louisiana. She suffered a lot going through segregation and the violence and discrimination that was happening there. But when my grandmother had her children, and her grandchildren, she had to balance pushing them along with being soft. So that’s the spirit I try to invoke when I deliver these songs. There’s a weight, but also a gentleness to it."

As for the music, "I make sure there’s a grit and some darkness in there with the light," Austin said.

Director Erin Neff works with 8th graders from Rooftop Alternative School on a scene from the new opera 'Harriet's Spirit'
Director Erin Neff works with 8th graders from Rooftop Alternative School work on a scene from the new opera 'Harriet's Spirit.' (Photo: Courtesy of Opera Parallèle)

The libretto is by Roma Olvera, Opera Parallèle’s education director, who said that in writing for Tubman's voice, she tried to capture her courage -- noting how after Tubman escaped to freedom, she returned to the south to free many others. "She said 'I was free and they should be free,’ Olvera said, quoting Tubman.  "So it's up to us," Olvera said, "and our inner spirit to free ourselves, and seek people who can help us do that.”

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There are only three performances of the opera this time around, on Jan. 18 and 20, but Olvera said the company hopes to expand and re-stage it again. Details here.

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