When composer and SUNY-New Paltz faculty member Nkeiru Okoye hit upon the subject for her second opera We’ve Got Our Eye on You, it struck her as a welcome bit of levity and fun coming after the heavy themes of her acclaimed first opera, Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom. “People necessarily think of me as a black woman composer, because I am. I wanted to do something that has nothing to do with that,” she said. She found her story in the most unlikely place: It is based loosely on the myth of Stygian witches, made famous in the popular 1980 film Clash of the Titans.
The story is set in and around a cave inhabited by the Graeae or Gray Sisters, who share a single external eyeball and who occupy themselves by catching, cooking and eating men. Soon Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, arrives to tell the sisters to expect a visit from Perseus, on his quest to discover Medusa. From there, the story explores themes of sexuality, with resonances both classical and current.
When Okoye began working with librettist David Cote, she insisted that, while the subject matter of the piece was in some ways racy and risqué, the actual language should avoid vulgarity and overt sexuality, dealing with its themes in ways more suggestive than explicit. Cote, Okoye says, soon discovered that he very much liked working within those imposed limitations.
We’ve Got Our Eye on You receives its premiere with a workshop production at SUNY-New Paltz in early March, featuring a mostly-student cast under the direction of Susan Einhorn and choir director/conductor Edward Lundergan. The opera was written with student performers in mind, but Okoye says that the student cast in no way restricted her compositional process. She did write the character of Pythia, however, with a classically trained jazz singer in mind: someone with the extended range that Okoye associates with singers raised in the black church. One purpose of this decision, Okoye argues, is implicitly to promote the racial integration of opera casts. In the current production, guest artist Patricia Eaton appears in the role of Pythia.
World-premiere performances of We’ve Got Our Eye on You will take place on March 1 and 5 at 8 p.m. at the Julien J. Studley Theatre on the campus of SUNY-New Paltz. A talkback session with the creative team will follow each performance. Tickets for We’ve Got Our Eye on You cost $10 general admission, $6 for seniors aged 62 and over and faculty/staff and $3 for students. They can be purchased at the door beginning one hour prior to the performance or online at www.newpaltz.edu/music. For additional information call (845) 257-2700. For more information on composer Nkeiru Okoye, visit www.nkeiruokoye.com.
Nkeiru Okoye’s We’ve Got Our Eye on You, March 1 and 5, 8:00 PM, $10/$6/$3, Julien J. Studley Theater, SUNY New Paltz, www.newpaltz.edu/music.