The Utopia Opera opened its eighth season, at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, on November 10, with the New York premiere of Thea Musgrave’s powerful “The Story of Harriet Tubman” (1993), chamber version of Musgrave’s grand opera “Harriet, the Woman Called Moses” (1985). Operas have traditionally been inspired by heroic figures and activist and abolitionist Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame, is a most inspirational heroine. Traditional spirituals play their part in Musgrave’s lyric tapestry, juxtaposed with the rousing solos, duets, large-scale ensembles, and choruses that she created. There’s dialect to be dealt with or ignored and side-stepped, as the artists see fit, but it’s not inappropriate to the period and scarcely detracts from the drama.
Music directed and produced by William Remmers, pacing the soloists, chorus, and an orchestra of eight, and staged and lit by Viktoria I.V. King, “Harriet Tubman” opened with “Let My People Go,” banned and controversial, as a call for resistance and escape, sonorously sung by bass Virdell Williams, as Harriet’s father Ben, with the chorus, and later, defiantly, with her people, by MaKayla McDonald, as Harriet, whose lyric soprano soared as she expressed the heroine’s fears, memories of her own harrowing escape, and her great hopes and dreams. She also sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as a dulcet lullaby.
Intense mother-daughter duets were entrusted to McDonald and Verdi mezzo-in-the-making Karmesha Peake, as Rit, the latter advising Harriet about how to deal with harsh realities, while Harriet confides that her dream is of freedom, in the first one, and when Harriet’s faith in her ability to realize her mission and liberate her family is juxtaposed with Rit’s reluctance to leave without Ben. The women joined Markel Reed, as Harriet’s fiancé Josiah, and Lindell Carter, as Harriet’s brother Benjie, for a spirited quartet, in which Benjie shares what he’s learned about the Underground Railroad.
Important non-singing assignments included that of Luke Jackson, as Preston, the hated, arrogant son of the Master, Q on Stage’s own Tadeusz von Moltke—when lustful Preston abuses Harriet, the Master defies him and rescues her, with fatal consequences for the landowner—and Kristoffer Infante, doubling as the Overseer and the Jailer.
After Harriet is sheltered by Mr. Garrett, with Andrew Dwan sympathetic as the Quaker abolitionist, her drive takes her back to the south 18 times, to rescue more than 300, in defiance of the law and despite the price on her head, and she returns once more to free her own family members. In a striking sequence, Reed’s Josiah fiercely lamented “the lonesome road” he faced, in Harriet’s absence, and the authorities seized him, as a runaway, and then took Ben in, to question him about the liberator called Moses, leading to Peake’s Rit’s wrenching plaint.
“The Story of Harriet Tubman” was slated for five performances, with those, after the opening considered here, scheduled for November 11 matinee, 16 evening, and 17 matinee and evening. The Utopia season will continue with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sorcerer” in February 2019, Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier’s comedy “Albert Herring” in April, and Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed’s “Some Light Emerges” in June. For details, visit www.utopiaopera.org