The Woman Called Moses
(1984) An Opera in Two Acts
Cast: 7 principal; 3 comprimario; 5 speaking roles; chorus
Libretto by the composer based freely on the life of Harriet Tubman
Commissioned jointly by the Virginia Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
See also the chamber version: The Story of Harriet Tubman
World Premiere: 1 March 1985,
Peter Mark, conductor
Gordon Davidson, director
& Co Ltd
...Musgrave doesn't merely quote these songs (spirituals). She combines and recomposes them...arrives at a collage of multi-layered new music in a spiritual style...For that matter, most of the new opera is indeed brand-new music in Musgrave's by now well-practiced style: lyricism for the post-Britten era...Operas of this fiery quality don't come round very often these days.
Leighton Kerner, The Village Voice
...Musgrave wrote her own libretto and she is as precise with words as she is with notes: her fictional additions meld seamlessly with Harriet's biography; her own mostly tonal music meshes smoothly with reworked spirituals, among them "Go Down Moses."
Manuela Hoelterhoff, The Wall Street Journal
...an opera of immediate and powerful impact...In fact, so clear is the emotional geography and so clear are most of the words that matter, the plot consistently makes its point. Each development of the story, as in conventional opera, brings a musical plum, with ideas to latch into the mind and positively to attract the listener...
Edward Greenfield, The Guardian
The story of Harriet Tubman concerns an individual gifted with those rare qualities of courage and imagination which enabled her to overcome seemingly insuperable odds. She followed the North Star to freedom and then became herself a famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, helping many other slaves to escape.
Her story is also a moving example of the age-old conflict between good and evil. Abraham Lincoln described it in very direct terms:
...slavery is the eternal struggle between two principles which have stood face to face since the beginning of time, and which will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of all humanity; the other is the divine right of kings. Slavery is the spirit that says 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it!' No matter what shape it comes in it is the same principle.
The remarkable seventeenth century Englishman, John Lilburne put it in another way: "For what is done to anyone may be done to everyone."
At one time or another, most of us have asked the question "but what can one person do?" Harriet Tubman is an inspiration to those of us who despair of being able to make any positive change in the world in which we live. Black people do not lack for heroes and heroines, but Harriet Tubman certainly deserves an exalted place in the history of mankind's struggle for human rights.
These are some of the reasons why I, a white woman of Scottish descent, felt moved to write about Harriet Tubman. But there is an another overriding reason why composers are drawn to subjects that cross political and temporal boundaries and venture into different, often exotic settings for their works. For in addition to making one's work a satisfying emotional experience for the audience, most composers want to underline and emphasize the eternal nature of human conflicts and emotions which transcend time and place. Artists are accustomed to making the leap in the imagination into the feelings and lives of people very different from themselves, yet impelled and moved by the same motivation. Harriet is every woman who dared to defy injustice and tyranny; she is Joan of Arc, she is Susan B. Anthony, she is Anne Frank, she is Mother Teresa.
The story is freely based on the life of Harriet Tubman, a slave who escaped from bondage on the Eastern shore of Maryland, and who became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, returning back nineteen times and rescuing over 300 of her people. At one time a reward of $40,000 was offered for her recapture alive or dead.
The opera opens with slaves passionately crying out for freedom. They stand aside to reveal Harriet restlessly asleep in the house of Mr. Thomas Garrett, a Quaker - she has managed to escape North and so reach safety. But in her dream she is told that she must not pursue her life with Josiah who has also made his way North, but like Moses, make the difficult journey to deliver her people from bondage. She is successful but she sacrifices her personal happiness.
The opera opens with the slaves passionately crying out for freedom. They stand aside to reveal Harriet restlessly asleep in the house of Mr. Thomas Garrett, a Quaker - she has managed to escape to the North and so to reach safety.
In her nightmare she relives various scenes which have led to her escape.
She first remembers the day when all her people sing the "Juber Dance" and how she interrupts it with the forbidden song "Go Down Moses." The Overseer is about to punish her, but the Master intervenes and reminds everybody that this should be a happy day since Preston, his son, will be arriving at any moment.
When Preston arrives, it soon becomes clear that he is as irresponsible as he always was. The slaves fear what will happen when "Old man buzzard comes to visit the big house" because the Master is indeed old and sick.
Harriet meets her friend Josiah and they speak of their love and plan to get married.
Meanwhile, in a scene between the Master and his son, Preston confesses that he has incurred a huge gambling debt. The Master explains that he cannot possibly help. He is appalled by his son's suggestion that he should sell some of the slaves to pay it. He feels responsibility and affection for his people who have served him well. Preston must find another solution. Preston, alone, realizes that a harsh jail sentence now seems inevitable. He starts to drink.
Entrusted with Preston's baby daughter, Harriet sings her to sleep, a lullaby based on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Preston enters and tries to seduce her. To his fury, she successfully defends herself.
Rit tries to comfort her daughter, who is distraught from the confrontation with Preston. But she can offer no solution to injustice, only resignation. "It ain't right! It ain't justice! But that's the way it is."
Benjie, Harriet's brother, runs in to warn them that Edward Covey, the slave trader and leader of the patrol, has been on a visit to the farm. The Master is, after all, going to sell some slaves to pay off Preston's gambling debt. Josiah is one of those to be sold South. Benjie reminds Rit and Harriet of the Underground Railroad that allows slaves to make the dangerous journey North, about "the train that leads you out of bondage, out of Egypt, to the promised land," about "the white folks willing to help." They all persuade Josiah that he must leave at once. Harriet bids him a hurried farewell and promises to follow him North very soon where they will be able to live their lives in freedom.
Preston, unable to find Josiah, has summoned the dreaded white patrol of vigilantes against his father's wishes. They arrive and raid the whole quarter, though Harriet manages to delay their search and so they do not find Josiah.
The Master enters and is outraged and appalled. He orders Covey and the patrol off his land. With his last strength he confronts his son. He is now determined to sell the farm and free the slaves. He cannot live with such dishonour. Preston storms out, furious and humiliated.
This confrontation with his son proves too much for the old man and he collapses. Harriet realizes that now Preston will soon be her Master. She resolves that she will never be his slave; she will escape or die in the attempt. "There is two things I got a right to, these are liberty or death. One or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive. I shall fight for my freedom."
Again all the slaves call out passionately for freedom. Suddenly, Harriet is back in Mr. Garrett's house in the North. She wakes. She now realizes that her dream is telling her that she must not seek personal happiness with Josiah. Instead she must go back South and, like Moses, deliver her people from bondage.
She hears the voices of her people calling out louder and louder. She is frightened by the overwhelming responsibility of what she is asked to do.
In the opening prelude we see Harriet, now an experienced conductor on the Underground Railroad, eluding Covey and the Patrol in a series of escapes. They become increasingly angry and restless at the loss of their "property" and determine that something must be done quickly.
During one of the escapes Josiah and Harriet are reunited and they narrowly escape capture by two slave catchers when Mr. Garrett arrives just in time to hide them in his house. Mr. Garrett explains that the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law even allows houses to be searched for runaway slaves and that Harriet and all the others who have escaped will have to flee to Canada. Harriet refuses to think of her own safety; instead she says she must go back South one more time to rescue her parents. Mr. Garrett is extremely alarmed. She has been South eighteen times and has already delivered over three hundred of her people. Too many people suspect that she is the famous Moses, and there is a big reward for "his" capture. Harriet insists that she must go. Mr. Garrett sadly bids her farewell.
Josiah is furious when, despite his pleading, Harriet is still obstinately determined to return South, thereby jeopardizing their chance of happiness as she will surely be captured or killed. He tells her "to go alone and stay alone." He will not wait for her any longer. After she leaves, his anger soon dissolves and he sings of his loneliness without her. The two slave catchers now reappear and successfully capture him. Mr. Garrett, however, hears Josiah's cries for help and follows them.
Meanwhile in the slave quarters all mourn the death of the old Master. Covey arrives and manages to persuade Preston that Ben has been helping runaways escape and that he must therefore know the identity of Moses it is essential that his activities be halted. They take Ben off to jail where he will stand trial. Rit laments bitterly. All are in despair but Benjie decides to go to the town to try and find Moses and elicit his help.
Morning comes and Moses arrives to lead her family to freedom. All acclaim Harriet as they now recognize her as the famous Moses.
Preston soon discovers the disappearance of Rit. He decides to summon Covey and the Patrol and leaves at once for the town jail. When they all arrive at the jail it is too late - Ben has already escaped. Furious and outraged, they decide to offer an enormous reward of $40,000 for the capture of Moses alive or dead.
Meanwhile Rit and Ben are reunited and they sit huddled together hiding in the swamp. Ben builds a fire to warm them. When Harriet returns from her reconnaissance she furiously stamps out the fire - it will give away their whereabouts. They leave hurriedly...
Back in the Northern town, the slave catchers imprison Josiah in a slave pen. Slowly the stage fills as Mr. Garrett and Harriet come with all their friends, other Abolitionists and free Blacks. Some of them surround the Slave Catchers, forming an impassable barrier, while others manage to break down the slave pen. The Slave Catchers scream out in anger and frustration. Preston then arrives and finally realizes that "his" Harriet is Moses. Beside himself with fury, he manages to break through the crowd to capture her, but Josiah attacks him, knocks him down and escapes with Harriet. Despite Garrett's urgent pleas for compassion, Preston determines to pursue Harriet, whatever the cost.
As they approach the bridge to Canada, Josiah has an opportunity to tell Harriet of his regret that they parted in anger. Instead of feeling rejected, he should have trusted her and recognized the work that she was doing. Harriet explains that when she came North and started to search for him all she could hear "was the voices of her people calling for help" and then she saw in a dream "there was ladies reaching to help us if only someone would lead the way." She realized that she had to sacrifice personal happiness in order to help her people. Josiah now ardently reaffirms his love for her. Soon they will reach safety and they will live together in freedom.
As they cross the bridge to freedom, suddenly Preston and Covey arrive in pursuit. Josiah steps in front of Harriet to shield her, and when Preston shoots, it is Josiah who is hit. Josiah with his last strength stumbles across the bridge and dies in Harriet's arms.
All her family and her people gather around to comfort her and to mourn Josiah's death. She will not grieve alone. Nor will she fight alone... they have found freedom with her help and others must too. They will all fight together "so that no one is a slave and so that all can live together in peace, in harmony and in freedom."
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