African Opera Ìrìn Àjò debuts at the College with diverse student cast

Photo courtesy of Di Guo ’21

Photo courtesy of Di Guo ’21

EMMA COOPER ’20

Ìrìn Àjò, an opera composed, written and directed by Five College music professor Bode Omojola, debuted on April 12 and 13 in Chapin Auditorium. The title of the opera is a Yoruba phrase meaning “life’s journey,” which is fitting as the opera details the story of Káyòdé, a Nigerian engineer who leaves his fiancée Ìyábò to immigrate to the United States in search of a better life.

The production featured performances by students in African Opera in Theory and Practice, a course Omojola is teaching this semester at Mount Holyoke. The production was accompanied by the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra with Music Director Ng Tian Hui.

According to Omojola, the African Opera course has two main components. In the beginning of the semester, the course focused on “important historical and cultural perspectives about African music… with a view to understanding indigenous West African operatic practices and how African composers, dramatists and musicians have responded to the impact of colonial rule.” As the class progressed, they began to rehearse the opera with four African master drummers, the Symphony Orchestra and the off-stage chorus —- which included professional singers as well as students. 

Emily Roles Fotso ’21, who played Ìyábò, decided to join the African Opera course after she heard about its culminating production. “I was really excited about the performance and I couldn’t wait to get involved,” she said. “It is absolutely amazing that Professor Omojola has been able to create such a beautiful opera that merges Western and West African music tradition to make something unique and powerful.”

Omojola’s inspiration for the opera and its portrayal of the moments of uncertainty immigrants face came from several sources. “While the storyline of the opera resonates with recent political developments in the country, the desire to capture the complicated experiences of immigrant life has been with me since when I was studying in the U.K.,” he said. “I am particularly interested in drawing attention to the lonely conversations and introspection that African immigrants engage in as they struggle to cope with difficult situations in a country far away from their original home.”

In regards to the musical composition of the opera, Omojola said, “The opera features African drumming and dance, Yoruba melodic procedures, elements of West African highlife music and Western harmonic procedures, which I adapted in ways that reflect the tonal qualities of the Yoruba language.”

For Cora Moss ’20, who plays viola in the orchestra, the opera was a departure from the “more traditional orchestral music” she has experienced both at Mount Holyoke and in high school. “It was a lot of fun, experiencing both the new styles of music that the opera presented, as well as experiencing what it’s like to play with other people, and learning how to balance the music not just with the other parts in the orchestra, but with the chorus and soloists as well,” said Moss. “I really enjoyed learning some traditional Nigerian music styles and expanding my horizons as a musician.”

Likewise, Kaussar Rahman ’18 encountered something new in Ìrìn Àjò. Even though she had little experience with theater, she decided to join the African Opera class in order to switch up her science-heavy course load for her senior year. “I do not regret [the course] one bit,” she said. “Bode is an amazing professor. He has taught me elements of my culture that I didn’t know the origins of. He took the time to teach us songs that he composed. He absolutely loves what he does, and it showed throughout the performance.” Rahman then added, “To me, I have gained a family by doing this show and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of an amazing crew.”

It’s through moments like these that Omojola believes Ìrìn Àjò was able to “[draw] attention to some of the values that define our community at Mount Holyoke College.” 

“Many students that we saw on stage were performing with a Western symphony orchestra for the first time,” he said. “Likewise, many members of the orchestra were participating in an African music performance for the very first time. In addition to demonstrating the energizing and creative power of diversity, that collaboration spoke to the dedication of our students and their ability to work together and explore uncharted intellectual and cultural pathways.”

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