It’s entirely coincidental that The Central Park Five, a new opera composed by Anthony Davis, premiered within weeks of the Netflix release of When They See Us, filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s highly acclaimed and much-watched mini-series on the same subject. It was also a coincidence in 1997 when his opera Amistad was staged for the first time just weeks before Steven Spielberg’s movie by the same title hit theaters.
Davis certainly has his finger on the pulse of the American zeitgeist. At the very least, he has an uncanny knack for scheduling the world premieres of his operas.
There are pros and cons to timeliness. Davis’s new opera, presented three times (June 15, 22, and 23) by Long Beach Opera at the historic Warner Grand Theater in downtown San Pedro, CA, received plenty of pre-premiere buzz, in part because it was swept up by the propulsive force of a Hollywood marketing wave. But along with the hype came the risk of comparison.
Of course, any comparison is an unfair one. DuVernay had Netflix money and Netflix time. Davis’s resources were far more limited.
Those budgetary limitations handicapped this opera, which lost a great deal of its emotional punch because the size of the cast was smaller than originally intended.
In 1989, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were boys between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were arrested for and wrongfully convicted of brutally beating and raping a female jogger in Central Park. Before they were exonerated 13 years later, they lost the remainder of their youths to incarceration.
DuVernay’s Netflix special makes a point of reminding viewers that at the time of their arrests and coerced confessions, these young men were very much still boys. Kids who played trumpet and crushed on girls. Kids with homework and curfews. Kids who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Davis wanted to hire 10 singers to portray his protagonists: five boys and five men. But a cast of that size was outside the range of LBO’s budget. Instead, five adult singers depicted the group as boys and men.
Bass-baritones Derrell Acon (Antron McCray) and Cedric Berry (Yusef Salaam) and tenors Orson Van Gay (Raymond Santana), Nathan Granner (Korey Wise), and Bernard Holcomb (Kevin Richardson) gave their all to these performances, and clearly did their absolute best to share the stories of the men they were portraying with empathy while executing Davis’s complex vocal lines with precision. At times during the work their collective presence and tight ensemble singing was powerful. Vocally, they (and the rest of the cast) exceeded expectations. There were no weak links on that front.
But watching five strapping adult men wrongfully convicted – while still unfair and heartbreaking – is far less disturbing than watching young teens manhandled by a biased, uncaring system. The maturity of this cast drained some scenes of their impact.
Opera stages can be monotonously white places, so it was beautiful to see and hear so much black and brown talent in one production. I left wanting to hear much more from the clear-voiced Granner and powerful, golden-toned Van Gay. Lindsay Patterson and Joelle Lamarre, who played several of the boys’ mothers and sang in the ensemble, weren’t on stage much, but their voices made a big impression. The vocal talent of this cast was the highlight of the production. Davis’s score demanded relentlessly acrobatic, complex singing, and each vocalist rose to the challenge. The LBO orchestra, conducted by Leslie Dunner, supported them valiantly, executing Davis’s richly textured, eclectic score with energy.
Dramatically, this cast did their best with Richard Wesley’s awkward, choppy, bloated libretto and an unpolished, at times cringe-inducing production.
Davis’s first opera, X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), is another of his stage works regularly mentioned alongside a filmmaker’s name—six years after that opera appeared, Spike Lee created a movie about Malcolm X.
I think that Andreas Mitisek, LBO’s Artistic and General Director and the director/production and video designer of this world premiere, was nodding to that connection, and attempting to channel Lee’s iconic, politically biting style with this staging. At least, that was the only way I could make sense of some of this production’s more bizarre and uncomfortable elements.
In She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s current Netflix show that adapts his 1986 film of the same title, the director plays fast and loose with format, cutting away from the show’s narrative regularly to insert acerbic political commentary—often in the form of direct, blatant sarcastic portrayals of and digs at Donald Trump. (Lee regularly refers to the current president as “Agent Orange.”) In The Central Park Five, Mitisek seemed to be attempting that same kind of sarcasm towards our current Commander in Chief, placing Trump ridiculously high on a tall podium, on the phone with prosecutors (something that never happened in real life) and – for a scene that went on far too long – in the middle of the stage on a golden toilet.
The end of the opera, too, seemed inspired by Lee’s work. The final scene jumped abruptly to a news story about the death of unarmed teen Tamir Rice at the hands of police, in much the same way that Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, cut to footage of the 2017 deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, in its final scene.
Effective sarcasm and political commentary is notably tricky to pull off. Lee is one of the few who can push limits in that way successfully. Mitisek’s apparent attempts to copy that style fell flat. His jabs at Trump were lowbrow and uninspired (patriotic underwear, too much hairspray), and his attempts at poignant political humor came across as tired, weak ploys.
A jab or two was appropriate in this work; after all, Trump had inserted himself (and continues to insert himself) into the story of the Central Park Five, with racist calls for the death penalty and an unwillingness to apologize for his role in exacerbating the media firestorm surrounding their indictment and conviction. But this opera gave him too much stage time.
One of the more brilliant achievements of When They See Us is the way in which Ava DuVernay humanizes each of the five boys by revealing their back stories, their families, and their personalities. A major flaw of this opera is that it did not do that at all. The boys here appeared as men who were almost interchangeable, and hard to distinguish as individuals. Their parents in the opera were quite literally interchangeable: Lamarre played Kevin’s and Antron’s mothers, while Babatunde Akinboboye played Raymond’s father and the real rapist, Matias Reyes.
This shocking lack of character development of the protagonists made the constant gratuitous presentation of the antagonist as caricature even more frustrating. In attempting to channel Spike Lee’s style and inject humor into the show, Mitisek shifted too much of the attention off of the men whose stories he was meant to be highlighting, and onto a man who already steals too much of our daily attention.
Problems with the production’s tone and cadence were not helped by the bloated libretto or chaotic score. There were moments when Davis’s richly textured orchestration and frenetic tone worked. During the opera’s most effective moment, the interrogation scene, the frenzied music and text mirrored the boys’ rising anxieties. But all of that push demanded a moment or two of pull, of release and emotional connection, and that never happened. At times the score – which was at its best between scenes – felt strikingly disconnected from the plot; upbeat jazzy punches and dancing rhythms seemed at odds with the story’s weight, as if the music belonged to a different opera.
The story of the now-exonerated Central Park Five is an important one that should continue to be highlighted on stage and screen. The cast of this LBO production served notice that it can be told powerfully as an opera, as well. But this particular opera needs more work, time, and funding. Without character development, it falls flat. Without resources, it stumbles.
Let’s hope it gets a reworking, because Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise deserve to have their stories told and voices amplified—and there’s no better place for voice amplification than the opera stage.
Catherine Womack is an L.A.-based arts and culture journalist who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter: @cewomackwrites
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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