Three years ago this month, the ever-provocative Long Beach Opera took another step out on a limb by staging the world premiere of Anthony Davis’s The Central Park Five. The opera was generally and rightly acclaimed, while attracting some controversy mainly due to the insertion of the character of Donald Trump — who was still president at the time — into the cast. (In response to my review, I got a few angry letters myself.) Knowing the discouragingly short shelf life for most new works, no one could say whether the piece would be taken up again.
Well, much has happened since. The Central Park Five score was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in May 2020. Just three weeks later, the George Floyd murder set off a national “reckoning,” with the collateral effect of a widespread overhaul of the classical repertoire to include much more music by Black composers.
Davis suddenly became a hot property. The Central Park Five received further productions in New York City and Portland, OR, and Davis’s first, nearly forgotten opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, was revived in Detroit in May and will be coming to the Met in 2023. There is now a half-hour-long Central Park Five Suite for trombone, double bass, and piano. And Long Beach Opera revisited their unexpected hit over the past weekend, with a studio recording session to follow this weekend (June 25–26) and a release in some unrevealed format planned for early fall.
When this pair of performances was announced — I caught the second one Sunday afternoon on, wouldn’t you know it, Juneteenth — it was billed as a “new production,” not a revival of former LBO Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek’s powerful conception from 2019. Okay, it was newly conceived, but it looked more like a bare-bones, semistaged concert performance than a full production. It was almost like a public dress rehearsal for the recording session — which is a pretty good practical idea since you do want to get things right for a document that will spread the word about an important new work.
Per its habit of holding performances in unexpected spaces, LBO this time chose the auditorium of Jordan High School in North Long Beach near the interchange of the 91 and I-710 freeways. It’s actually a much-better-than-average high school facility that finished an impressive $22 million renovation in 2021, with modern lighting and sound installations, new comfortable seats, and a seating capacity of 1,350.
Whereas the orchestra was in the pit in the original production at San Pedro’s ancient Warner Grand Theatre, here the musicians were onstage behind the performers — all agreeably amplified. Unlike the original production in which Mitisek deployed a collection of portable walls and doors on casters, there were no sets except for a single metal fire-escape structure. Nor were there any projections to establish the time, place, and mood — as there were on the portable walls in 2019. Aided by minimal lighting effects, at first in half shadow, the focus was on the characters and the score — and the work proved sturdy and straightforward enough to stand as a concert piece.
To recap the real-life case of the Central Park Five briefly, five boys aged 14, 15, and 16 were charged in 1989 with raping and mutilating a 28-year-old woman in Central Park, and four of the five were coerced by law enforcement to make signed and videotaped confessions even though DNA tests did not tie them to the crime. After being tried as adults and imprisoned, the five were exonerated in 2002 when another inmate, convicted rapist Matias Reyes, confessed to the assault. The opera lays out the case in linear, easy-to-follow fashion in a relentless burst of indignation about the justice system and racial profiling.
Davis’s score remains a highly absorbing, smoothly integrated blend of atonal classical writing and swinging, occasionally free jazz that often wanders in a surreal dream state underneath Richard Wesley’s coruscating texts. Conducted by studio stalwart Anthony Parnther, the onstage orchestra with its jazz rhythm section and bluesy solo trombone sounded even looser and freer than its predecessor, generating especially hard-swinging work against string counterpoint during the “wilding” scene. Jazz buffs will get a kick out of the Ellingtonian colors in the orchestrations early on when one of the boys imagines Harlem as a black and tan fantasy. (“Harlem” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” are the titles of Ellington compositions.)
The new director, J. Ed Araiza, has a few differing ideas on the treatment of the characters — particularly that of Trump, who in 1989 was a celebrity real-estate developer whose inflammatory ads in the New York newspapers stirred up public opinion against the boys. The earlier production depicted Trump mainly as an attention-hogging buffoon, garnering laughs from the audience when barking orders while seated on a gold toilet. But here, he seemed more of a sinister, remote figure, mostly pouring verbal gasoline on the fire from his perch atop the fire escape. No one laughed this time.
At the end of the opera, when the newly exonerated boys line up and proclaim in an uplifting finale that they’re still here (I’m reminded of Porgy’s “I’m on My Way” that closes Porgy and Bess), Mitisek’s production counteracted that with ominous projected headlines of racial profiling cases to come. The last thing we see in Araiza’s production is an unrepentant Trump standing alone on the fire escape, a preview of coming political attractions.
Three of the five singers portraying the boys from the 2019 cast — Cedric Berry as Yusef Salaam, Bernard Holcomb as Kevin Richardson, and Orson Van Gay as Raymond Santana — returned in 2022, with William Powell III (Antron McCray) and Ashley Faatoalia (Korey Wise) rounding out the quintet. All are strong singers, and all now look considerably older than the teenagers that they portrayed (though it was fitting that they were singing on a high school stage). Justin Ryan forcefully sang the composite role of The Masque, whether reciting law-and-order rhetoric or browbeating the boys along with the imperious D.A., Lacey Jo Benter. Trump was impersonated — red tie and all — by Todd Strange in a reedy tenor voice.
At a time when some are gearing up to squash police reform in the name of rising crime rates, I imagine The Central Park Five will serve as a warning that injustices still remain. But even if by some miracle the issue disappears, I think this opera can have a long shelf life on the strength of the score alone. We await the recording.