`Is this how it was with Mozart?'


Q&A -- Nkeiru Okoye

September 03, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Reporter

From the time she was a little girl, she heard music: in the wind rustling through the trees, in the colors of earth and sky, in the clamor of the streets. Even the children's stories her mother read to her rang like melodies in her ears, and making up songs to go with the words seemed as natural as breathing.

"If I had been born into a musical family they might have recognized that I was a composer," says Nkeiru Okoye (pronounced in-KIR-roo Oh-KOY-yeh). "But I wasn't."

Then, at age 13, Okoye began writing down the notes she heard - and suddenly her gift was recognized. She won prizes, scholarships and trips abroad that gave her opportunities to work with some of the world's leading conductors. She earned a bachelor's degree in composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a master's and a doctorate from Rutgers University.

Today, the tall, slender, 34-year-old Baltimore resident is one of only a handful of African-American women composers whose works are hailed by critics. They are regularly performed by such major American and European orchestras as the Detroit Symphony and the Moscow State Orchestra.

Now Okoye, a native of Massapequa, N.Y., is immersed in her most ambitious project to date: a full-length opera based on the life of Harriet Tubman, who became famous as a conductor on the Underground Railroad that conveyed thousands of African slaves to freedom before the Civil War.

The sweeping musical tapestry is slowly taking shape in a cozy North Eutaw Street studio crammed with computers and recording equipment.

Okoye's work-in-progress is an ensemble of achingly beautiful arias, duets, trios and choruses that recount the major episodes in Tubman's career from her birth in 1822 on a plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore to her death in Auburn, N.Y., in 1913. When completed, this labor of love scored for eight soloists, chorus and orchestra - which, unusually for her, Okoye embarked on without waiting for a formal commission from an orchestra or opera company - will be approximately two hours long, comparable to the classics of the standard Italian, French and German operatic repertory.

How do you feel when you're actually writing down what you hear for the Tubman opera?

It's both the most exhilarating and the most exhausting project I've ever done. Some mornings I wake up and the songs are right in my head. I just write them down, as if I'm transcribing them. Then I wonder, "Is this how it was with Mozart, like in Amadeus?"

So when it's there, it's just like I'm transcribing the notes. Then, there are other moments where everything's slow and I'm not sure where it's going or where it should be going. At those times you've got to struggle. It's not uplifting like the Mozart moments. But you have to take it in stride. It's like any other kind of writing. Some days are exhilarating and others are slow, but you know that if you persist eventually it will be completed.

What sources do you draw on for inspiration?

A lot of it is about music from Tubman's own time, which I researched for this project. In that sense, it's a piece about American musical history as well as about her. I thought, "What music did she hear?" because I wanted the music to be reflective of her and her time. And there was this whole world of music in her day: work songs, protest songs, spirituals, children's songs, ballads; there's something called a ring shout, where the singers form a circle to sing hymns; there's blues, gospel, quartets, call and response; even classical forms, like certain dances, or maybe a sonatina; and then there are the minstrel songs - it's all music of her world.

She was in New England, she visited the Alcotts, the Emersons and other leading Boston families, and she might easily have heard all these things. So I envision her as a fairly cosmopolitan person musically, and I've included a lot of these different kinds of music in the opera, where it's all written to sound familiar to the audience.

What drew you to Harriet Tubman as a subject?

A lot of my works are about African-American women and the African-American experience. I was looking to do something about a heroine, a noted historical figure, and that brought me to Harriet. I had already done a piece about the poet Phillis Wheatley that was commissioned by an orchestra in London. I wanted to know what made Tubman keep going up and down the East Coast risking her own freedom to bring others out of bondage. There's a lot of mystery about Harriet, because there are so many discrepancies in the various accounts of her that come from so many different people having talked about her, hardly any of whom let her speak for herself.

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