dfp_header_hidden_string

Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Harriet review at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield – ‘vivid new chamber opera’

Harriet at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield. Photo: Brian Slater
by -

The life of Harriet Tubman, African American freedom fighter and former slave, is a gift for an opera composer.

Born on a plantation in Maryland, Tubman escaped to the North and became a heroine of the ‘underground railroad’, helping thousands to freedom. After fighting in the Civil War, she settled in New York State, married a young soldier of 22 (she was 44) and lived until she was 90.

Mexican composer Hilda Paredes has managed to distil this story into a vivid, punchy chamber opera for two voices and three instruments.

The UK premiere took place during the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival – a hotbed of experimentation – so this was no historical recreation with period costume.

Jean Lacornerie’s staging includes crisp LED lighting and stark, cartoonish projections beamed onto a curtain of white filaments. Paredes’s score, played live on violin, guitar and percussion and backed by an electronic landscape designed by Monica Gil Giraldo, remains bright and surprising over the 90 minutes.

Anchoring the ‘monodrama’ is high soprano Claron McFadden, a proud figure in a severe black gown and Puritan neckerchief. It was McFadden’s suggestion to make an opera about Tubman, and Paredes has written dreamlike, stratospheric phrases for her extraordinary voice. McFadden shares the narrative with agile soprano Naomi Beeldens, combining lyrical recitative with Sprechstimme and snatches of well-known spirituals.

Bringing the story into the present, newspaper headlines chart the progress of the civil rights movement and the opera ends with a hopeful image of the young Barack Obama on the screen. Unvoiced is the thought that the current president could right now be undoing all that Harriet Tubman fought for.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.

Subscribers to The Stage get 10% off The Stage Tickets’ price
Verdict
Shockingly relevant opera about American freedom-fighter Harriet Tubman with a bright electronic soundscape
^