By Debra D. Bass
UPDATE: Our January version of this story had the headline "Why Anthony Davis thinks opera is the best way to tell an African American story" but on May 4, UC San Diego music professor Anthony Davis was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music. (Read more)
UC San Diego music professor Anthony Davis has written six operas, including his most recent work “The Central Park Five.” The opera received its world premiere in June at Long Beach Opera in June.
Composer Anthony Davis, who produced the work with librettist Richard Wesley, spoke of the inception and scope of the opera onstage through one of UC San Diego Extension’s public programs on December 7, 2019.
The opera artistically recreates the story of five black teenagers who were exploited and wrongly convicted of a gruesome crime. His other operas have addressed historical figures and recent events, including Malcolm X and Patty Hearst.
In this conversation with UC San Diego Music Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle, Davis offers some unexpected insights into his history and the production. The conversation is also interspersed with video from the production and backstage interviews with the performers.
Here are a few moments from the event.
Davis explains that he was inspired to write his first opera before he had ever heard an opera. He spent his 10th grade year studying in Italy and a “wonderful philosophy teacher introduced us to existentialism.” He said that he was reading Soren Kierkegaard, widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, and Friedrich Nietzsche for the first time. He said that Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” had a profound effect on him. He imagined that an art form that was a collision of the improvised and formal, traditional world would be a great platform to tell the story of African American experiences. And his precocious teenage mind, dreamed of reinventing opera for that purpose. Davis joked that, “obviously, I wasn’t ready to do it.” But the notion of writing an opera stayed with him.
When did he start constructing this retelling of “The Central Park Five” story?
His work on the project started in 2014 and coincidentally the first workshop performance was staged in 2016. This was just 3 days after the election of President Donald Trump, who is a character in the opera. Davis echoed the opinion of many in saying that Trump’s status as a political figure began with his denouncement of the young teenagers who were mistreated and forced to confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. The initial performance was staged in Newark, New Jersey and Trump’s character was booed both when he first appeared onstage and later for his curtain call. But the opera singer did a fine job and Davis said that the curtain call boos morphed into applause.
Have you ever been stopped by a cop?
The first time Davis visited California he was stopped while driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles with a friend and his first wife, who have since divorced. Davis was at a stop light in Los Angeles, in the early 80s when a police officer pulled them over. Davis said that instead of giving him a ticket, walked around to the passenger door to ask his wife, “Are you ok?” Apparently because she was riding in a car with two African American me. “Well, thank god, she didn’t hate me then,” Davis said matter-of-factly. The second time he was stopped, he was driving from New York to Boston to play a gig and he explains that an officer held him at gunpoint for an hour because he met the description of a bank robber.
Well, he’s received interest in stage “The Central Park Five” from opera companies in New York, Atlanta and England, but no word on the next production.
In the meantime, he has been commissioned to write an opera about another tough topic – the Tusla race massacre. The home of the Black Wall Street at the time in the Greenwood District of Tusla, the community was viciously attacked by mobs of white residents who resented their prosperity. The year 2021 will be the 100th anniversary of the atrocity and Davis’ next opera is slated to debut.
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