UC San Diego Composer Introduces 'Central Park Five' Opera
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / May 13, 2019
Composer Anthony Davis and cast members will be performing excerpts from the "Central Park Five" opera and taking part in a talk on the subject Monday at 7 p.m. at UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium.
Speaker 1: 00:00 The story of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of rape and their eventual exoneration is as relevant today as it was when had happened 30 years ago. In addition to a forthcoming feature film, the young men's experience of false confessions and years behind bars is being retold and what might be an unexpected genre as an opera, Uc San Diego Music Professor Anthony Davis compose the central park five, his eighth opera, this one based on a Libretto by Richard Wesley and Anthony Davis joins me now to talk about it. Anthony, welcome. Oh, hello? Yes. What makes this story still so relevant now?
Speaker 2: 00:41 Well, I think it's relevant because it's a recurring story. I mean the idea of African American and use being falsely accused and their harassment by police and the excesses of police violence and police brutality as well as the rush to judgment. And I think that that's still pertinent today. And that's also how African Americans and Latinos have to always be in a defensive position. And, and now we see with the what's going on, it's even getting worse in terms of government intervention. And with, with immigrants, et cetera. So I think that, uh, this is a real issue and something that's really relevant to people who are often described as the other.
Speaker 1: 01:22 And you lived in New York when this was going on. What do you remember from that time?
Speaker 2: 01:27 I had a bit of a memory of it, you know, of their trial and conviction and the fewer about what happened to the central park jogger. And I remember Donald Trump's, uh, taking out ads, calling for the death penalty for these five teenagers. The reaction Patrick could be candidate among others. You know, talking about lynching them in central park. The invective was horrifying. It was horrifying to me because they also represented an attack on the, on the black community, particularly a collision of culture between, you know, the idea of the emerging hip hop culture, which was happening in Harlem with the emergence of, of hip hop in the Bronx. You know, in the late 1980s it was symbolic of a kind of cultural war and the, and the idea of trying to suppress the use enthusiasm about hip hop into a new music in a new culture.
Speaker 1: 02:17 And you know, as you said, Donald Trump became a central figure in the story. Here he is at the time in a clip from a Ken Burns film on the subject, you better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally. You better believe it. Now he took out an ad in several New York newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated. Why include him as a character and the opera? What role does he play in the larger story?
Speaker 2: 02:45 Actually, the central park five was I think the beginning of his political career and all the hallmarks of his career are in, are evident in here. The idea of exploiting racial tensions, the idea of exploring that for his own personal gain. So I think that he was getting attention from the media and becoming a spokesperson for all of these people, horrified by the, the violent act. And then all the people who would condemn and vilify these young men. So I see him as it. Yeah. As playing a pivotal role because in a way, in a way, one of the things, fascinations of opera is with evil and with what, what happens when people are obsessed with power and people are willing to condemn and bill by others. Originally in the original version of the Libretto, he did not appear in the opera. When I read it I said I have to have Donald Trump in it.
Speaker 1: 03:34 How do you convey on stage what those then teens lost in their wrongful convictions?
Speaker 2: 03:39 Well, I think that you have to think about the time they lost the also their self esteem and what they went through as young men. I mean the four of them were in a juvenile detention for seven years, but carry wise was in an adult prison for 13 years. I mean in spite of human beings and you're getting exonerated and, and the settlement the city made it still haunts him and I think still haunts the others too. It's something that they have to live with every day. And also to restore their reputations.
Speaker 1: 04:10 And there's an Aria Sung by a masked character. Let's take a listen.
Speaker 3: 04:36 [inaudible] [inaudible]
Speaker 4: 04:42 [inaudible]
Speaker 1: 04:46 he says, the way they talk, the way they walk, acting like they don't care in Harlem, they're always angry than music. The lyrics certainly convey emotion. The mast character is a reporter and there were lots of ways the boys were misrepresented by the media at the time. How critical are those examples of sensationalism spin and stereotypes to telling the story now?
Speaker 2: 05:09 Well, I think they are critical because it's a kind of way in the invective works, you know, the way that rumors are spread, the weight reputations are destroyed and the feeding frenzy that always happens with media and the willingness of people to believe things on the surface. And I think in their case, the Basque plays various different characters in the opera. He starts as a reporter and then he becomes a policeman. Then it becomes part of the legal team that's prosecuting the boys, but also he's kind of symbolic of the many forms of racism, maybe forms of prejudice and bias that exists in our society. And the threat that that is to the very existence of African American and Hispanic young men. And there's a connection
Speaker 1: 05:58 between this story and the black lives matter movement. Tell me that.
Speaker 2: 06:02 Well, I think that, uh, many respects to the black lives matters movement grew out of the, the protests that began after the boys were incarcerated and the call for their release. And then eventually when the, you know, they, they found my ts Reyes who was actual a salient confessed to the crime. This really brought to light the sense of the injustice in the ongoing sense of injustice and the fact that it keeps going, it keeps happening, whether it's in Saint Louis or, or Milwaukee or these incidents keep happening in African American, Hispanic, young men have to be always on guard.
Speaker 1: 06:37 Hmm. And many of the operas you've composed had been stories of social significance really, that, that focus on the black experience in America. You know, the life and times of Malcolm Max Omnistar, the slave ship revolts and the trial that followed. Um, why is it important to tell these stories and why use opera as a tool to do it?
Speaker 2: 06:56 I think it's very important to tell these stories because, uh, in a way to own them, particularly as an African American myself, I think it's important to, to, to tell those stories from our point of view, a lot of times things get buried. And for me, opera is almost, is a very interesting form because there's not a realistic form. It's not a form that's about realism or action in real time. And opera time is suspended. And so you can actually look at what's behind everything. You know, this psychological forces, the also political and social forces that the movements that create the situation, you can look at all the things that all the forces that influence what's going on.
Speaker 1: 07:40 I've been speaking with composer and UC San Diego, Professor Anthony Davis. You can catch a special performance from the central park five opera and a talk tonight at seven at Uc San Diego Mandeville Auditorium. Anthony, thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 2: 07:55 Well, thank you. I appreciate it.
Speaker 4: 07:57 [inaudible].