With The Lyric's Harriet Tubman Story, Young Singers Learn History With Their Opera

Aug 15, 2016

Kids in the Lyric’s Summer Opera Camp are getting some particularly timely lessons this year, and they don’t all have to do with vocal performance.

The opera they’re learning is She Never Lost a Passenger, which recounts the tale of Harriet Tubman, the slave who escaped to freedom and returned to guide some 70 slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad network of safe houses.

“Children are learning these things who would otherwise might have read that one paragraph in the history book and gone on,” says Soprano Roberta Gumbel. “So they’re getting a little bit more flavor and understanding of what the plight really was.”
 

Soprano Roberta Gumbel (at right) leads a runaway slave to freedom during a dress rehearsal with opera camp students.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Gumbel originated the role two decades ago when Lyric Opera Kansas City commissioned the music and libretto from Susan Kander. Since then, the opera has been performed in schools and opera companies around the country.

Portraying Tubman in a recent rehearsal with some 60 students in the opera camp, Gumbel sang to the group of runaway slaves she was leading to freedom. Tubman warned of the dangers that lay ahead.

“Freedom is a hard bought thing,” she sang. “I know it’s hard. I know, but your conductor has one rule: those that start this journey see it through. There is no turning back.”
 

Gumbel looks to the conductor as she sings the role of Tubman. Gumbel originated the role 20 years ago when Lyric Opera Kansas City commissioned the music and libretto from Susan Kander.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced that Tubman would appear on the $20 bill, a decision that excited Soprano LaTeesha McDonald-Jackson, who portrays Tubman as a young woman in the production.

“It’s an amazing time right now, perfect timing, right?” says McDonald-Jackson. “For Harriet Tubman and Lyric Opera and their 20th anniversary and then the twenty dollar bill.”
 

Conductor Tubman (Gumbel) watches over runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Tubman led some 70 slaves to freedom along the dangerous route of safe houses.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

For the past 24 years, children from grades 3 through 12 have had a chance to perform next to professional singers through the summer camp program. McDonald-Jackson says the opera gives the campers a chance to experience history in a new way.
 

“The kids have a large role in this show,” says McDonald-Jackson. “Several of them get to play Minty (Tubman’s childhood name). They get to play runaways. They have pieces where they sing alone without principle artists. It’s quite an experience, I think, for them and hopefully something they take with them and are able to form a love of arts including opera.”
 

Eleven-year-old Sa’Mya Sharay Lewis (left) gets a little help backstage from ten-year-old Zayne Rice. Both girls play a young Harriet Tubman in the opera camp production of 'She Never Lost A Passenger.'
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Eleven-year-old Sa’Mya Sharay Lewis was chosen to play Minty as a young girl. Lewis says she had a lot of help learning how to play a character from history.

“It shows the parts where she was brave and showed how she knew how to handle herself,” says Lewis. Studying the life of Tubman through the opera had taught her one thing. "You should always go for your dreams and succeed."

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.