This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Anthony Davis' opera The Central Park Five, with a libretto by Richard Wesley, has won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Davis joined me to discuss the Pulitzer Prize win, The Central Park Five, Trump's character in the opera, philosophy and opera at large.
MUSIC THAT SPEAKS TO OUR TIME
Anthony Davis’ music is far from ‘art for art’s sake’. “As an artist today I don’t think that it’s enough just to create music, music also has to speak to our time and address the profound concerns we have,” says Davis. Since his first opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Davis has written operas about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the slave revolt on board the Amistad, 9/11, and McCarthyism. Broadway fans might also know Davis, as he composed the music for Angels In America.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
The Central Park Five is a musical treatment of the 1989 convictions of five African-American and Latino teenagers of the rape and assault of a white woman, Trisha Meili, in Central Park that April. The teenagers were at the wrong place at the wrong time and were exonerated through DNA evidence thirteen years later. The opera includes Donald Trump as a character. “Central Park Five was the initial cautionary tale about Donald Trump. He exploited the whole situation with the Central Park Five to begin his political career,” says Davis. “A lot of the trends that you see today like race-baiting, exploiting the racial divide, were evident then in his letter saying that we should restore the death penalty in the New York newspapers. It foreshadowed what he would become, and what we’ve seen of him as president.”
The final version of the opera was premiered by the Long Beach Opera in 2019, but an earlier version of the work was performed in Newark in 2016. “We did an earlier version of the piece the day after the election. We were wondering - what’s the effect going to be if he loses or if he wins in terms of how the piece is seen? The audience was largely African American, and when Trump came on stage for his bow everyone booed,” says Davis. “They booed the character and cheered later for the performer. In a way it was almost like doing a Renaissance Opera, where you have a stark evil character and a whole audience who feels one way. In the opera I paraphrased things that he actually said. I try to see what the appeal is to a third of our population; what draws people to the flame?”
PHILOSOPHY INFORMING OPERA
Davis was first drawn to opera because he was very interested in philosophy. “Initially at Yale I was going to be a Philosophy major. In high school I read The Birth of Tragedy when I was in Italy,” says Davis. “That really excited me in terms of how Nietzsche ascribed the Apollonian and the Dionysian, it’s a way of looking at art. I thought it was applicable to American music because of the African and European influence, that was the big conceptual thinking about what an opera would be.”
What opera can be is a question that Davis continues to ask and explore. He was recently approached by American Opera Projects to write a 10-minute video opera. “I have no clue how to do that (laughs), it’s a new challenge! I’ve never thought about a 10-minute opera before.” There was plenty of humor in his voice; he found joy in the idea of an opera being the same length as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
PULITZER PRIZE WIN
In the past day, there’s been an outpouring of congratulations and support from Davis’ colleagues and friends. “People who have been advocates of my work have reached out and are happy to see my work recognized,” says Davis. “I’ve heard from musicians who I respect and former students. It was touching to hear how emotional they were about it. Getting notes and phone calls from my artist friends, like Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and Vijay Iyer has been great.”
Reflecting on the Pulitzer Prize Win, Davis said, “I’m thankful for all the people who worked on The Central Park Five and am really happy that the piece is being celebrated in this way.”
Opera News has called Anthony Davis, "A National Treasure," for his pioneering work in opera. His music has made an important contribution not only in opera, but in chamber, choral and orchestral music. He has been on the cutting edge of improvised music and Jazz for over three decades. Davis has composed five operas. X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X with a libretto by Thulani Davis, had its world premiere at the New York City Opera in 1986. A recording of the opera was released in 1992 on the Gramavision label and earned a Grammy nomination for music composition. Anthony Davis has been awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New York Foundation of the Arts, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Massachusetts Arts Council, the Carey Trust, Chamber Music America, the MAP fund with the Rockefeller Foundation and Opera America. Davis is currently a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.