Anthony Davis Builds Operas From Headlines

Victoria Looseleaf on June 3, 2019
Anthony Davis | Credit: Nelvin Cepeda

The words “Trump” and “opera” occurring in the same sentence might seem far-fetched, but for composer Anthony Davis, whose latest work, The Central Park Five, has its world premiere at Long Beach Opera on June 15, inserting a Trump figure was, in fact, integral to the story. Based on the notorious case of a quintet of African-American teenagers falsely accused and convicted of rape and assault after a 1989 attack on a white jogger — one in which presidential hopeful Donald Trump played an infamous role — the opera tops off a series of so-called ripped-from-the-headlines’ works that Davis has composed in his decades-long career.

Born in New Jersey in 1951 and having studied at Wesleyan and Yale universities, Davis is also known for his symphonic, choral and chamber works, with his first opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, playing to sold-out houses at its premiere at the New York City Opera in 1986. Considered the first contemporary political opera (John Adams’s Nixon in China would not be heard until the following year), X was hailed by The New Yorker’s Andrew Porter as a work that “brought new life to America’s conservative operatic scene.” 

Davis’s second opera, a science fiction opus, Under the Double Moon, followed in 1989, with a 1992 recording of X receiving a Grammy Nomination for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition.” Switching operatic gears yet again, Davis turned to the 1974 abduction of heiress Patricia Hearst for his third opera, Tania. Bowing at the American Music Theater Festival in June 1992, a 2001 recording of that work was released on Koch, with the European premiere of Tania presented by Musikwerkstaat Wien in 2003.

Anthony Davis

Additional Davis operas include Amistad, a production of the Lyric Opera of Chicago that bowed in November, 1997. Set to a libretto by poet Thulani Davis, the composer’s first cousin who also wrote the libretto to X, the true story detailed the shipboard uprising by slaves and their subsequent trial. (Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same name was released in December, 1997.) The opera was directed by Tony Award-winner George C. Wolfe, who had previously reached out to Davis to compose the music for Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika for their Broadway openings in 1993.

In hewing to his operatic credo of dealing with issues of human and civil rights, Davis composed Wakonda’s Dream, which was given its premiere in 2007 by Opera Omaha. With a libretto by poet Yusef Komunyakaa, the work is based on the trial of Chief Standing Bear in the 1870s. And while his operatic output continues to grow, Davis also counts a number of orchestral works in his repertory, performed by, among others, the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Beethoven Halle Orchestra of Bonn, with the La Jolla Symphony premiering the composer’s Amistad Symphony in 2009.

A tenured professor of music at UC San Diego for more than 20 years, Davis is also an acclaimed free-jazz pianist who formed the erstwhile octet, Episteme, as well as having played with such musical luminaries as Anthony Braxton and Leo Wadada Smith. I spoke with Davis about topics that ranged from writing an opera about real people and how politics continues to affect his art, to whether or not he suffers from opening night angst.

Was there music in your family and what initially attracted you to opera?

Both my parents were musical, so I was able to have piano lessons when I was young [but] I got into opera in the 10th grade when I lived in Torino, Italy. I didn’t go to the opera there, but I had a philosophy class at the American School and the course was about existentialism. I read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and both dealt with opera. Through Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy he talked about when the Apollonian and Dionysian [worldviews] met, and from Kierkegaard I learned how he analyzed Don Giovanni.

My interest in opera was piqued and I began to formulate my own ideas of what opera could be. Later, when I was in college, I studied opera at Yale with Robert Bailey who was dealing with Wagner and Strauss. I was interested in that, but my initial ideas came through Nietzsche and the passionate revolutionary aspect of the Dionysian as opposed to the formal — the Apollonian — and I began incorporating the improvisational music of jazz into opera.

What was the genesis of The Central Park Five, how did Richard Wesley come to write the libretto and what kind of research did you do?

I met [Long Beach Opera Artistic and General Director] Andreas Mitisek about four or five years ago and told him that I was developing an opera about the Central Park Five with Kevin Maynor [the director of Trilogy: An Opera Company, a New Jersey-based arts organization]. That was in 2015, but I hadn’t started writing music. Kevin, who is also a singer, gave me a libretto by Richard Wesley and I thought that was something I could do. We began to revise and develop it, and there was a performance in Newark [New Jersey] in 2016 called Five, but it wasn’t a whole piece. Andreas commissioned the work based on that. 

I had heard of Richard — he’d done some screenplays for Sidney Poitier, Uptown Saturday Night — and then met him. We worked well together. Richard did a lot of research and we both looked at Ken Burns’s [2012] documentary. I also tried to find as many different articles as I could from different perspectives. My cousin, Thulani Davis, had covered the trial for the Village Voice and I was trying to refine the story to have them emerge not as a monolith, but as five different people. That was important. The first draft didn’t have Trump in it, but I insisted that we had to have Trump in the opera.

How do you go about composing for a Donald Trump character, sung in this production by Thomas Segen?

I saw a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where he has the globe and is playing with it. I have a moment that’s inspired by that. It’s an instrumental thing and Trump is preening, practicing his hand gestures, looking in the mirror. The person who plays him is younger and I had three rules: First, he’s a tenor; second, he’s repeats himself a lot; and third is that he never completes a sentence. That’s how I describe him.

There’s a comic aspect to him, but it’s also scary and terrifying. I think there’s an interesting thing you look at — you have to take seriously his appeal, why people support him. I’m not, of course, sympathetic, but this idea of the group dynamic [is] what creates fascism. Why spewing hate and rage and anger and fear is attracting people. That’s what demagogues do. Sometimes in laughing at him, we forget how serious it is and how much of a threat he is. He appears at the end of the opera again, in the third act [which is] from his press conference in 2016 when he said that the [Five] were no angels and they were lucky they didn’t get the death penalty.

The case transfixed a racially polarized New York, and the five teens were labeled a “wolf pack” by the media, with op-ed essays generalizing the alleged spread and cultural panic caused by “wilding,” or partying among powerless men around the country. Ads and tabloids were also exacerbating racial division and acrimony. How did this kind of thinking infuse your music?

In writing for the ensemble of five men, I was thinking of the music of the ’80s. Rap influenced this opera, because when [people] said there was “wilding” in the park, they were misquoting “Wild Thing” from rapper Tone Loc’s song. When the trial happened, it was the beginning of hip-hop and it was coming from the South Bronx into Manhattan, so I think part of the issue in the opera is that it’s symbolic of the threat hip-hop posed to norms — to someone like Trump, who would try to exploit that in a culture war.

The Central Park Five in court

What are some of your considerations when writing an opera about real people and events, and with Ava DuVernay’s miniseries, When They See Us having just dropped on Netflix, why do you think the Central Park Five story continues to generate headlines?

For one thing, I think it signaled the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and also because the Innocence Project worked so hard to look into these types of cases. It’s emblematic of what the Innocence Project has done to help all the falsely accused people and highlight the problems in our judicial system. There’s also the emergence of Trump — that jump-started his career as a politician. There are a lot of reasons why it’s critical and important, and it shows how he manipulated racial division for his own political benefit. That was something apparent then and [in] what he’s doing today. I also think that the opera will play an important role in understanding where we are after Ferguson.

[As for] writing about real people, you have to keep to things that are in the public domain. There’s always something in the press that you can use. Also, you have to be respectful of people that are alive, except maybe for Trump. Generally, with the five [boys], I felt we had to be respectful of them and also, with the Trump figure, be historically accurate and keep to what they said at the time. We’re not inventing something new.

How would you describe your style, which incorporates jazz, rhythm ’n’ blues, gospel, and other genres?

I think it’s hard to describe, but one thing I pride myself in is that [my music is] propulsive and rhythmic. I look at opera as a kind of rhythmic drama. We have to think about not just the singing parts — and I do think my music is lyrical — but also the fact is it has to compel the drama. For me, a big influence was gamelan music. I was interested in a kind of rhythmic drama that goes on with that. I also think of opera as moving things — you see people moving onstage and changing intensity, etc., so the music has different levels of intensity based on the rhythmic structure. This is something I developed over time, from my first opera, X, and I’ve continued to refine it.

What makes for good subject matter for an opera?

It depends on the scale of the opera. Central Park Five is more of a chamber opera, but the stakes are more epic. A big political opera like X was obvious, because to me, Malcolm is a tragic hero, and in a way, a Wagnerian model because he goes through a transformation. In each act he has a change of name, going from Malcolm Little to [hustler] Detroit Red and finally to Malcolm X. Those name changes really embody his transformation of his whole outlook.

Amistad, was a big dramatic story and so was Wakonda’s Dream, which was about contemporary Native American life. Then I write chamber operas like Tania, which is more comic with a dark side to it. But Tania was another transformative story where she’s indoctrinated from Patty to Tania and back again. It’s a circular thing and we played off that.

Each piece has its own special world — and a different musical world, too. Under the Double Moon was a fantasy — and the hardest to do — because it was an original story that no one knows, but I’m very proud of it. It has its own world, its own raison d’être.

Have you always been a political person and what do you say to those folks who want to go to the theater to escape today’s turbulent times?

I’ve always been political, and when I first went to college, I thought I would be a political scientist or become a lawyer. I like to engage with that, because I like the turmoil — to dwell in that area of conflict — so many of my works show my concerns with our ongoing political struggle. But I never looked at art as escape. I look at art as it’s more about sublimation or the cathartic aspect, where you go to see something that allows those negative forces to be released. I think of it as a cathartic response, a healthy way to deal with issues and events that are deeply troubling and still resonate today.

Where can one find you on opening night of a world premiere and what is your state of mind?

I guess I’ll just sit with my wife and watch the show. I used to be really nervous, but I think I’ve learned you have to let go. It’s not yours anymore, it belongs to the performers. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. It used to be I was working so hard with all the details, that when the lights came down I fell asleep. My wife won’t let me do that, so I think I’ll be awake for this one.