On Friday 9 November Harriet by Hilda Paredes will be performed in November Music, in a production by Muziektheater Transparant. The opera is dedicated to the legendary Afro-American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913), who escaped from slavery in the middle of the 19th century. Hereafter she liberated many fellow slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad, at the risk of her own life. After years of tug-of-war the American Treasury decided to place the portrait of Tubman on a 20-dollar note in September 2018.
Harriet was composed on a commission from the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Mexico, the Belgian Muziektheater Transparant and the Dutch Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, where it was premiered in October 2018. The charismatic soprano Claron McFadden initiated the opera and sings the leading part, the Flemish singer Naomi Beeldens is her conversational partner Alice. Harriet is directed by French Jean Lacornerie, and the Belgian Hermes Ensemble is conducted by Manoj Kamps.
Before the premiere on 3 October I talked with Hilda Paredes and Claron McFadden, who gave a moving insight in her own background in the United States. The soprano grew up in Rochester, New York, where Tubman had once had one of her safe-houses. Her great-grandmother told her about this famous abolutionist, yet she was too young to fully grasp her importance. – Her relative died when Claron was six years old.
In the Netherlands, the Mexican-British Hilda Paredes (1957) is little known. Although she has lived in England since 1979, she still has strong ties with South America. In 2001 she received the prestigious J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship for her opera El Palacio Imaginado. This is based on a story by the Chilean author Isabel Allende. For the libretto she drew from modern Mexican poetry, among other things.
I met Paredes for the first time in 2010, during a concert of the Arditti Quartet. I was impressed by her second string quartet Cuerdas del destino, in which the string instruments whisper like human voices. But who is Hilda Paredes? A short portrait in three questions I asked the composer at the request of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.
What typifies you as a composer?
I find much inspiration in the rich cultural life of my native Mexico. I often work together with Mexican poets and artists, but I also follow other musical traditions. In terms of rhythm and structure, I am inspired by the music of North India. However, I avoid quoting or imitating traditional music. – Except when the subject asks for it, as in the case of Harriet. I like to put poetry to music and address psychological, political, gender and humanitarian issues in my operas.
Moreover, over the past fifteen years I have worked a lot with electronics. This has not only drastically changed my way of listening but also my way of composing. I often make instruments sound different than we are used to, using alternative playing techniques that I develop myself. Fortunately, most musicians today are familiar with such ‘extended techniques’.
What can we expect from your opera ‘Harriet’?
It is a portrait of the African-American freedom fighter and former slave Harriet Tubman. Harriet tells her life story to her young protégé Alice. In the first act we hear about her youth as a slave and about a violent injury to her head. This gave her religious visions that eventually showed her the way to escape.
She became known as the Moses of her people, a leader who freed many slaves. To this end she used the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery activists. Via smuggling routes slaves could flee from the southern to the northern states of America, and later to Canada. Like most of her peers, Tubman was illiterate, so she used music to guide runaways. Encrypted messages were packaged in simple tunes, some of which you hear in the second act.
Once she had acquired a property as a free woman, Tubman took in an eight-year-old, light-coloured girl, Margaret. The third act is about the unanswered question of whether Margaret was her daughter, because the two had an unusually strong bond. In her old age Harriet often told stories to Margaret’s youngest daughter Alice.
The fourth act describes the battles Harriet led during the Civil War. She also reminisces about Nelson Davies, a young soldier who became her second husband. We get to know her thoughts as recorded by various sources. Finally she states her message to President Lincoln. The epilogue is a message of hope and continuity in her struggle against slavery and racism.
How did you set up your composition?
Harriet is a chamber opera for two voices, percussion, violin, guitar and electronics. The original idea was for a monodrama, to be told by Harriet. But during our research we came across her strong bond with Alice, Margaret’s youngest daughter. In the new set-up Harriet tells her story to Alice, who also acts as a third-party narrator. That’s why in the final version there are two singers.
Mayra Santos-Febres has written beautiful and well documented poems, based on Harriet’s life. Lex Bohlmeijer wrote most of the dialogues and made a storyline. Because I had only limited means at my disposal, I also use electronics. The electronics create an extra, but very subtle extra layer to the performance. Thus I was able to unfold a wide sound spectrum that does justice to the dramatic development of Harriet’s life.
9 November, Theater aan de Parade, Den Bosch, 9 pm: Harriet by Muziektheater Transparant. More info and tickets here.