Legendary Bassist Marcus Shelby Discusses His Opera “Harriet’s Spirit”

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By JR Valrey, the Minister of Information

Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were two of the first internationally known Black musicians in this country, and they were both leaders of big bands otherwise known as orchestras, which means that big bands played an integral part in Black people gaining the little respect we do have in this country; starting with mass media perceptions trickling down into everyday society. Music has always been a big part of the cultural revolution against white supremacy, but the point I am making is that although Jazz, Rock, R&B, and Hip Hop is worldwide, having been born in the U.S. and started by Black people, all of this positive media attention started with the big bands.   

Today Marcus Shelby, the legendary bassist and pianist, is following the same path and using an opera to tell a fictional story that includes Harriet Tubman, called “Harriet’s Spirit”, which he performs today and tomorrow, at the Bay View Opera House in Hunter’s Point, San Francisco. Rarely do ghetto-dwellers get the opportunity to see live music being played by our own people, except when we attend church. We should always expose ourselves to new things within reason, to learn more about ourselves, and the world around us. I salute Marcus Shelby for bringing this show to the Point, and giving our people access to cultural art forms that on average, the Black community does not have access to. Check out the legendary instrumentalist in his own words, and check out “Harriet’s Spirit” today and tomorrow at the Bay View Opera House.  

JR Valrey: How did you get the idea to write an opera about an iconic figure in the Black Liberation Movement? 

Marcus Shelby: The opportunity to compose an opera about Harriet Tubman came after I had performed in Terrence Blanchard’s opera called “Champion”, 6 years ago with the esteemed opera company Opera Parallele conducted by Maestra Nicole Paiement. Although I hadn’t written an opera before, I had composed many pieces about Tubman’s history and her many accomplishments from 1822-1913. I had even composed a 2 hour oratorio about Harriet’s life for big band 8 years ago, that I was fortunate to be able to record. One thing to note is that this opera “Harriet’s Spirit” is not a history piece, but a story about how a young girl (Modesty) channels the spirit of Harriet Tubman to help her confront school yard bullies, who are taunting her young friend. We do have Harriet as a character in this modern day story, who inspires Modesty to gain the courage to speak up and protect her friend Ben. 

JR Valrey: How does the music correlate to the theme? 

Marcus Shelby: The music contains all of the various moods in the opera including joy, sadness, fear, anger, and hope. Nonetheless, it’s foundation is the root of all black music—the Blues, which is realized through tension and release. I orchestrated the opera for a 10-piece chamber orchestra featuring violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, acoustic bass, piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, and vibes/percussion. The music Aldi includes 3 different Choruses and 3 leads. The threat, fear, and trauma of schoolyard bullying is problematic on countless playgrounds. I have attempted to use the orchestra as a way of expressing the various feelings, characters, colors, rhythms, time, and space that a story like this can embody. 

JR Valrey: What was your creative process like, while you were writing this piece? How long did it take from concept to fruition?

Marcus Shelby: This was a 4 year process, that included composing a piano and vocal score, a period of revision after a reading, a workshop after orchestrating for the chamber orchestra, more revisions, and then our rehearsals for the upcoming premier. The uniqueness of this particular process was having the unexpected time during the pandemic shutdown, to spend orchestrating the music and imagining without any time restraints countless musical possibilities. 

JR Valrey: What exactly defines an opera versus a musical? Do all operas only include classical music?

Marcus Shelby: For me, the distinct difference is the relationship of music to the vocal music. In Opera, the music is just as prominent and important in the story-telling process as opposed to just supporting the vocal music. There are also technical and form differences, but even those standards are being reimagined. 

JR Valrey: Did you write the material with certain artists in mind? If not, how did you pick who you wanted to include in the production?

Marcus Shelby: Opera Parallele contracted the orchestra and lead vocalists. We are lucky to also be working with the SF Girls Choir who play the schoolyard characters in our opera. The one character I did pick is the voice and character of Harriet Tubman (vocalist Tiffany Austin), who I have worked with for over 10 years and wrote the music based on her gifts and incredible range and ability to sing the blues in any idiom. 

JR Valrey: How long have you been an instrumentalist? What instruments do you play?

Marcus Shelby: I’ve been playing for over 30 years. I primarily play acoustic bass and piano, and can dabble on many other instruments. 

JR Valrey: Why has it taken you so long to write your first opera?

Marcus Shelby: This was the first opportunity I received to compose an opera and receive all the necessary support to have it produced. The cost of producing an opera is extraordinary, due to all of the necessary components that include musicians, singers, stage designers, costume designers, directors, rehearsals, and many many other costs. I’m thankful that this opportunity came along at the exact right time in my creative career. 

JR Valrey: Where will you perform this piece? When?

Marcus Shelby: The Bayview Opera House November 13-14, 2021 

(1 pm/4 pm)

JR Valrey: How could people get tickets?

Marcus Shelby: Please go to the Bayview Opera House website or the Opera Parallèle website for all information 

JR Valrey: How could people stay online with you? 

Marcus Shelby: I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and have my own website (marcusshelby.com).

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