Skip to content

Hilda Paredes immortalises African-American freedom fighter in her opera 'Harriet'

On October 3, the opera Harriet by Hilda Paredes premiered, dedicated to legendary African-American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913). In the mid-19th century, she escaped a slave existence, after which she risked her life to free many peers through the so-called Underground Railroad. 

After years of wrangling, the US Treasury decided in September 2018 to put Tubman's effigy on a 20-dollar note.

Harriet was composed on behalf of Internacional Cervantino, Muziektheater Transparant and Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, where the first performance will also take place. Charismatic soprano Claron McFadden sings the lead role, Flemish singer Naomi Beeldens interprets her interlocutor Alice. On 2 October, I speak after a free public rehearsal with the composer, director Jean Lacornerie and conductor Manoj Kamps.

Mexican roots

In the Netherlands, Mexican-British Hilda Paredes (born 1957) is little known. Although she has lived in England since 1979, she still cherishes strong ties with South America. In 2001, she was awarded the prestigious J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship for her opera El Palacio Imaginado. It is based on a story by Chilean author Isabel Allende. For the libretto, she drew on modern Mexican poetry, among others.

I myself got to know Paredes in 2010 at a concert by 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 exactly is Hilda Paredes? By way of introduction, I asked her three questions in advance.

Unusual modes of play

What typifies you as a composer?

I find a lot of inspiration in the rich cultural life of my native Mexico. I often collaborate with Mexican poets and artists but I also tap into other musical traditions. For instance, in terms of rhythm and structure, I am inspired by the music of northern India. However, I avoid quoting or imitating traditional music. - Except when the subject calls for it, as in the case of Harriet. I like to set poetry to music and address psychological, political, gender and humanitarian issues in my operas.

Moreover, for the past 15 years I have been working a lot with electronics. This has drastically changed not only my way of listening but also my way of composing. I like to make instruments sound different from what we are used to, using alternative playing methods that I develop myself. Fortunately, most musicians these days are familiar with such 'extended techniques'.

Hilda Paredes (c) Graciela Iturbide

Coded messages as simple tunes

What can we expect from your opera 'Harriet'?

It is a portrait of African-American freedom fighter and former slave Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913). Harriet tells her life story to her young protégé Alice. In the first act, we hear about her childhood as a slave and about a violent injury to her head. This caused her to have 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. Smuggling routes allowed slaves to flee from the southern to the northern states of America or to Canada. Like most of her peers, Tubman was illiterate, so she used music to show runaways the way. Coded messages were wrapped in simple tunes, which you can hear back in the second act.

Enduring fight against racism

Once on her own, she took in an eight-year-old light-skinned girl, Margaret. The third act deals with the unanswered question of whether Margaret was her daughter, as the two had an unusually strong bond. In her old age, Harriet often told stories to Margaret's youngest daughter Alice.

Harriet Tubman on $20 note

The fourth act describes the battles Harriet led during the Civil War. She also tells about Nelson Davies, a young soldier who became her second husband. We get to know her thoughts as recorded by various sources. Finally, her message to President Lincoln is heard. The epilogue is a message of hope and continuity in her struggle against slavery and racism.


How did you set up the work?

Harriet is a chamber opera for two voices, percussion, violin, guitar and electronics. Initially, it was to be a monodrama, narrated by Harriet. But during research, we stumbled upon her connection with Alice, Margaret's youngest daughter. In the new set-up, Harriet tells her story to Alice, with whom she also interacts. Therefore, there are two singers.

Mayra Santos-Febres created beautiful poems, based on Harriet's life and well documented. Lex Bohlmeijer wrote most of the dialogues and created a storyline. Because I had to row with limited resources, I used electronics in addition to vocals and instruments. In this way, I was still able to unfold a broad spectrum of sound that does justice to the dramatic development.

Good to know Good to know

Hilda Paredes: Harriet: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
Music theatre Transpararant
2 October 12.00-13.30 public rehearsal Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ Free admission on booking I speak with Hilda Paredes, director Jean Lacornerie and conductor Manoj Kamps

3 October 8.15pm world premiere Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. Info and tickets here. Introduction 7.15-7.45pm. Speaking to Hilda Paredes.

Appreciate this article!

Happy with this story? Show your appreciation with a small contribution! That's how you help keep independent cultural journalism alive. (If you don't see a button below, use this link: donation!)

Donate smoothly

Why donate?

We are convinced that good investigative journalism and expert background information are essential for a healthy cultural sector. There is not always space and time for that. Culture Press does want to provide that space and time, and keep it accessible to everyone for FREE! Whether you are rich, or poor. Thanks to donations From readers like you, we can continue to exist. This is how Culture Press has existed since 2009!

You can also become a member, then turn your one-off donation into lasting support!

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

Private Membership (month)
5 / Maand
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Own mastodon account
Access to our archives
Small Membership (month)
18 / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of less than €250,000 per year
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Posting press releases yourself
Extra attention in news coverage
Large Membership (month)
36 / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of more than €250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Share press releases with our audience
Extra attention in news coverage
Premium Newsletter (substack)
5 trial subscriptions
All our podcasts

Payments are made via iDeal, Paypal, Credit Card, Bancontact or Direct Debit. If you prefer to pay manually, based on an invoice in advance, we charge a 10€ administration fee

*Only for annual membership or after 12 monthly payments

en_GBEnglish (UK)