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August 11, 2023

Meet the Artists: Nkeiru Okoye’s When the Caged Bird Sings


Fusing elements of oratorio, theater, and opera in a multi-movement musical ceremony, When the Caged Bird Sings draws inspiration from the Black church and celebrates the spirit of rising above expectations and transforming adversity into triumph. Partly in tribute to the activist and poet laureate Maya Angelou, the work celebrates the transformative ability of Black women, commemorating those who have paved a path for future generations in many fields of human endeavor.

When the Caged Bird Sings is presented in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) and was commissioned by SMTD as part of its Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity initiative.

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Meet the composer and performers making their UMS debuts in this world première.

Nkeiru Okoye, music and libretto

Nkeiru Okoye

Composer and lyricist Nkeiru Okoye has been hailed as “gripping” and “evocative” by the New York Times. She composes symphonic, vocal, opera and chamber music. Her genre-bending compositions draw from classical, gospel, folk, jazz, R&B, and African diasporic music, often infused with African American improvisatory techniques. Okoye became a Guggenheim Fellow in 2021 and is the inaugural recipient of the International Society for Florence Price’s composition award. She uses her expertise in African American studies, Women’s studies, and historical research to create works that affirms both traditional and new audiences. Her piece, Dancing Barefoot in the Rain, was immortalized by Carnegie Hall’s CH monogram campaign.

Okoye’s music has been funded by organizations including National Endowment of the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, Opera America, ASCAP, Meet the Composer, and the Yvar Mishakoff Trust for New Music. Her works have been commissioned, performed and presented by Detroit Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, and many others. She has written lyrics, poems and libretti for commissioned works including Love & Longing (the Juilliard School), Inside is What Remains (Tulsa Opera), and We Met at the Symphony (Harlem Chamber Players). Okoye is a native New Yorker of African American and Nigerian heritage. Her music is published exclusively through Theodore Presser.

Rita Coburn, narrator

Rita CoburnAward-winning, director, writer, and producer Rita Coburn has nearly four decades of experience in radio, television, and film. Coburn’s notable credits include historical documentaries on Black culture, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah Radio, and BET/Centric. Coburn’s interests are the stories of prominent figures and key ideals relevant to Black and underrepresented culture, uniquely addressing Black culture from a multi-generational lens.

Coburn produced Maya Angelou’s Oprah Radio program for Oprah Radio Sirius XM from 2006 to 2010. Her company, RCW Media Productions, Inc. produced Maya Angelou’s Black History Month Specials 2011, 2012 and 2013 distributed by Public Radio International. Coburn began a partnership with American Masters, co-directing and co-producing Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. The documentary premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and garnered a Peabody Award in 2017. She went on to direct and produce Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands (2022), a celebration of the iconic contralto’s resilience, power, beauty, voice, and courage that earned a Christopher Award in 2023. Coburn began developing W.E.B Du Bois: Rebel With a Cause for American Masters in 2022, receiving the highest documentary funding awarded for production from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEH) in 2023. With a team of acclaimed historical advisers in place, she will begin production in early 2024, with a tentative broadcast date in mid-2025. Coburn’s public engagements include Carnegie Hall, Yale Divinity, Cambridge University UK, and Columbia University. Her novel, Meant to Be, published by Strivers Row Random House (2001), tells the story of how a young woman’s spiritual awakening leads her to maturity and self-fulfillment.

Angela Brown, soprano

Angela BrownAngela Brown personifies the ideal soprano: sheer vocal power; luxurious finesse; and shimmering, high pianissimos. With captivating star power, she unites opera, pop, and gospel in one sensational voice. She has graced the leading opera and symphonic stages on six continents. She is a featured artist on the two-time Grammy Award® winning recording Ask Your Mama and the voice of contemporary African American opera roles of Addie Parker (Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird) and Cilla (Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner) as well as the time-honored roles of Tosca, Aïda, Amelia (Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera), Elisabetta (Verdi’s Don Carlo), and Leonora (Verdi’s Il Trovatore).

While opera is the main catalyst for her career, Angela’s performance experience includes everything from star emcee to producer, recording artist, educator, and podcast host. Angela is the founder of Morning Brown, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to bringing cultural experiences and awareness to historically excluded communities and audiences. The success of her signature show, Opera…from a Sistah’s Point of View provided the momentum and cornerstone for an array of outreach and educational programs that have been presented in 20 USA states.

Christie Dashiell, alto

Christie DashiellBorn in Washington, DC, and raised in Greenville, NC, vocalist and composer Christie Dashiell is a graduate of Howard University and the Manhattan School of Music. At Howard she was a member of Afro-Blue, the university’s premier vocal jazz ensemble and appeared as a member of the group on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off.

She is the recipient of DownBeat magazine’s Best College Graduate Jazz Vocalist and Outstanding Soloist awards. Dashiell tours with her own quartet, and has performed with Nancy Wilson, Geri Allen, Allan Harris, Smokey Robinson, Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hammond. She releases her long-awaited second album, Journey in Black in September 2023. 

Issachah Savage, tenor

Issachah SavageAmerican tenor Issachah Savage’s profile was dramatically raised when he swept the boards at Seattle’s International Wagner Competition in 2014, taking the First Prize, Audience Prize and Orchestra Favorite awards. His performance of the last act of Verdi’s Otello, inspired the San Francisco Chronicle to write, “From his opening notes — impeccably shaded and coiled with repressed fury — to the opera’s final explosion of grief and shame, Savage sang with a combination of power and finesse that is rare to observe.”

Equally at home on the concert platform, Issachah Savage has a wide repertoire that includes mainstay works such as Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, Verdi’s Requiem, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder alongside less-frequently performed pieces like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Weill’s Lost in the Stars, and Gershwin’s Blue Monday

Issachah Savage has received a number of prestigious awards, recognition, and career grants from institutions including the Wagner Societies of New York, Washington DC, and Northern California; the Licia Albanese International Puccini Foundation; and the Olga Forrai and Gerda Lissner Foundations. He was honored in the early stages of his career development as the first ever “Scholar Artist” of the Marian Anderson Society of Philadelphia.

Jubilant Sykes, baritone

Jubilant SykesPerhaps no vocalist of our time possesses a more exquisitely versatile instrument than the American baritone Jubilant Sykes. Known for bringing a unique dimension to the traditional career of a classically trained vocalist, Sykes draws on gospel, jazz, and folk influences to deliver performances across multiple musical genres. His unique gifts have taken him to hundreds of stages around the world, performing with a number of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors.

The Grammy nominated baritone was named “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone for his recording of Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass. He made his film debut in the movie Freedom playing the African slave Ozias. He later played the lead in Breath and Imagination by Daniel Beaty, a play about the life of Roland Hayes produced at Hartford Stage. At New York City Center, he portrayed Pompey in the musical Bloomer Girl and Henry Richard Lee in the musical 1776. In late 2023, he will appear in the suspense/thriller Fin. Jubilant resides in southern California with his wife Cecelia and their three sons.


Office of the President Arts Initiative