On May 1, 1989, a full-page ad appeared in all four major New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. The ad, paid for by Donald Trump, was part of a national furor over the assault and rape of a woman in Central Park. Five teenagers, four black and one Latino, were wrongly convicted of the crime and spent several years in prison before being exonerated. In 2019, Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley adapted this story into a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, “The Central Park Five”. This month, Portland Opera will be the second company in the United States to stage a full production of the work.
“When you work with a nascent text in any form, you’re the first to tell the story of how those people lived,” says Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who is making her directorial debut with Portland Opera. Garrett feels the weight of the production acutely since all five men (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise) are still alive. “I have to approach history with extreme humility. I keep saying to the performers, “The blessing is that we’re given the privilege to hold this story.”
The opera opens with the men exonerated before returning to the beginning of the story, where the teenagers are arrested by the police and questioned mercilessly. Salaam wrote in a 2016 Washington Post article that they had been deprived of food, drink and sleep for more than 24 hours.
“This opera is about the moment the boys realize they’re inside a system that was built to hurt them,” says Garrett. “It is devastating to be a witness. You cannot escape the impact of music.
Davis created a composite character called The Masque, who takes on the roles of the police, district attorney, judge, jury, and media. The character, played by Johnathan McCullough, embodies the real-life institutions and individuals who demonized the boys and put them in prison.
As the show parallels historical events, Garrett uses contemporary imagery to draw parallels between past and present: “The question I ask in this production is why does this tragedy have to keep happening? Should we continue to demonize black and brown youth? »
Lead “The Central Park Five” is Kazem Abdullah, who is also making his Portland Opera debut. “I told Kazeem that I can read music, but I don’t really understand the impact of what I read,” says Garrett. “His clarity on the precision that Davis uses in music is so tremendous. I’ll give the performers a note: “Right now, it’s happening to this person.” And he said, ‘And those are the three notes that will help you get there.'”
Abdullah, who was born in Indiana and is now based in Germany, likens the role of a bandleader to captaining a ship, helping to steer the production where it needs to go. But conductors are also performers. “Anyone who reads, plays or sings music is performing,” says Abdullah. “By reading and learning music, we interpret. In the same way, two people have different reactions to a television news or a literary work.
Like Garrett, Abdullah sees the power of opera as a medium that does more with less: “There’s that moment at the start of ‘The Central Park Five’ when The Masque sings its first word. Harlem. And he sings it in a bluesy jazz idiom that can make someone nostalgic. In music, you’re able to just stress a certain syllable of a word, and the way the music backs it up really sets the mood.
“In the theater or in the cinema,” says Garrett, “the actor has an emotional connection to the language and the words are what the actor plays, to give you the humanity of the moment. In opera, there’s the tone, there are notes that trigger some kind of emotional connection that your body recognizes.Language is secondary.
Davis’ score blends opera, jazz and popular music in a unique way. “He uses a lot of the techniques that are common in popular music,” Abdullah says, “but he’s able to very deftly and subtly transition into jazz styles or give an 80s hip-hop flavor, which is so important when these events took place. I don’t know that many operas that deal with an event from the 80s and 90s. Or now, since the men were exonerated not so long ago.
The tradition of opera dates back to 16th century Italy, but opera is not tied to the past. “I think the medium is changing,” says Abdullah. “And that has to change depending on the era and the country it’s being done in. We’re still using the same 12 notes that they used hundreds of years ago, but we’re able to use them in multiple ways. with more instruments and voice types. Modern opera is a medium that goes beyond just telling stories.”
“I think we need to tell this story in every way possible,” says Garrett. “Opera is another way to convey the tragedy and resilience inherent in this story. It also contains the stories of others who have experienced the betrayal of the system. It’s not just about these five, but also about the stories that go untold. We therefore have a heavy responsibility to tell the truth.
Details: Portland Opera presents “The Central Park 5” at 7:30 p.m. March 18, 24, 26 and 2 p.m. March 20 at the Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, tickets start at $35, portlandopera.org. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID test required. Digital access available April 8 through May 20, Portland Opera Onscreen, $50.
— TJ Acena, for The Oregonian/OregonLive