This year’s Pulitzer Prize for music—an award once won by Kendrick Lamar, but more frequently given to composers of classical music—will go to Anthony Davis for his 2019 opera The Central Park Five. The piece, an adaptation of a 2016 work by Davis, was commissioned by the Long Beach Opera and debuted at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro last June.
The opera is inspired by the notorious 1989 New York City case that saw five Black and Latino teenagers convicted of a crime for which they were ultimately exonerated–after serving more than a decade in prison. According to the Pulitzer jury, The Central Park Five is “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”
Davis, who serves as a professor at UC San Diego, is no stranger to using music to address issues social justice and American life. His first opera, which debuted in 1986, was X: The Life and Times of Malcom X. He has since written operas about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the slave revolt on board the Amistad, 9/11, and McCarthyism, among many other subjects. He composed the music for the Broadway productions of Angels in America, a work for which author Tony Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
“It’s difficult to write operas about real life situations and make them effective and [Anthony Davis] did this amazingly,” Long Beach Opera CEO Jennifer Rivera told the Press-Telegram. “It is an amazing piece of music theater. It absolutely transports you to this situation.”
The Central Park Five was commissioned by Rivera’s company for a 2019 season during which all of the productions addressed race, inequality, and social justice. While opera may have a reputation as dusty or out of touch, Long Beach Opera focuses on modern and socially conscious works.
Davis is also an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion in opera, something he and the company that commissioned the piece both value. “We see the Opera Theater of St. Louis and Long Beach Opera and Opera Philadelphia involved with community and creating new works by composers of color; that’s been a great trend,” Davis told the Washington Post in a 2019 interview. “It’s also important musically to broaden the aesthetic of what opera can be.”
Founded in 1979, it was during the 1983-84 season that the company found what would become its signature style. Under executive director Michael Milenski, Long Beach Opera adopted a mission to stage what might be considered ‘edgy’ operas that connect with contemporary audiences, both in traditional theater spaces and as site-specific experiences.
“Our name will always be associated with this piece and we’re really thrilled about that,” Rivera told the Press-Telegram about the Pulitzer win. “We’ve always believed in it, and it was something that everyone on the team had to really believe in because it was a controversial work.”
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