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WEDS@7 Black Lives Matter

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019 7:00 pm

Conrad Prebys Concert Hall

General Admission: $15.50
UCSD Faculty, Staff, Alumni: $10.50
Student Rush: Free with ID
MUSIC Box Office: 858-534-3448
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Event Program (PDF)

Black Lives in the Operas of Anthony Davis

The stories in my operas are drawn from the history of African Americans from the tragic consequences of the slave trade to the emergence of Black Nationalism and galvanizing figures like Malcolm X. In my operas, one can find heroic figures like Malcolm or Cinque, the leader of the Mende rebellion, Yoruba deities like the Trickster God and the Goddess of the Waters, or tragic victims of the American justice system, or misguided leaders of marginalized radical groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army. My operas address the issues of race and the collision of culture.

My first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X with a libretto by Thulani Davis follows Malcolm X’s odyssey and transformation from Malcolm Little, to Malcolm X and finally to El Hajj Malik el Shabazz. The three act structure of the opera corresponds to a change of name. In Act I, Malcolm becomes Detroit Red, the street hustler, who finds himself at the end of the act confronting his demons in prison. In Act II, a visit with his brother Reginald, introduces Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In Act I he becomes Malcolm X and begins his ministry. In Act III Malcolm breaks with Elijah and makes his pilgrimage to Mecca and embraces Sunni Islam. His story was told in the opera as the classic journey of the tragic hero whose metamorphosis reflects the evolution of African American politics and identity. The rhythmic structures in the opera compel the drama reflecting Malcolm’s violent world. The music also reveals the parallel musical evolution of Jazz from Swing and the Jump Blues of the late 1940’s to the modal innovations John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the 60’s.

My opera Tania about the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst also explores a political topic with heiress turned revolutionary. Whereas X at root is a tragedy, Tania with a libretto by Michael John LaChiusa is a dark comedy reflecting an undeveloped revolutionary ethos signaling the end of the earlier period of radicalism. Much of the opera happens in a “closet world” where Patty becomes the revolutionary Tania and then after the death of her comrades becomes Patty again. The music employs parody to comic effect and musical repetition as a means to explore brainwashing in cults and conversion therapy.

The opera Amistad with a libretto by Thulani Davis tells the story of the mutiny and trial of Mende captives aboard the slave ship Amistad. The opera reveals the story of the Amistad as not only the pyrrhic victory of Mende captives who were never slaves but also as a transformative moment in the formation of American culture. This is represented in the opera in the parallel story of the arrival of the Trickster God in America. It is no accident that the anxiety about slave rebellions with Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and the Amistad helped account for the popularity of the minstrel show in “White” America beginning in the 1840’s. The opera explores this cultural phenomenon as the genesis of American culture, no longer European, forever entangled in race and representation. The Trickster’s arrival is balanced by the emergence of the Goddess of the Waters for whom the Middle Passage is a violation of body and spirit. The music of the opera ranges from an evocation of the sea to the playful improvisatory spirit of the Trickster, who plays with language and time.

The Central Park Five will premiere in June at Long Beach Opera. The opera with a libretto by Richard Wesley, examines the wrongful conviction of five teenaged boys in New York City for the rape and assault on the Central Park jogger. The case electrified New York City and the boys were vilified for their supposed actions. Donald Trump was particularly vocal in his accusations against the boys. He published letters in the New York newspapers calling for the death penalty beginning his ongoing campaign to promote racial division and acrimony. The opera explores the interrogation of the five teenagers that forced confessions and the racial anxiety in New York with the emergence of hip-hop and hip-hop culture.

I would like to thank Alan Johnson who has been a tireless advocate for my music and an indispensable proponent of new American opera. I would also like to thank the performers, Christine Jobson and Carl DuPont. I would also like to thank the institutions that have supported this project, the University of Miami, the University of California, San Diego, the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

--Anthony Davis


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