Composer Anthony Davis’ “The Central Park Five,” which premiered with the Long Beach Opera in June 2019, won the Pulitzer Prize for music, it was announced Monday.
“I am incredibly proud to have been part of an organization that presented this work,” said Jennifer Rivera, LBO executive director. “I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award than Anthony Davis, as he has had such an illustrious career, remains a leader in the field of opera composition and is also a wonderful, humble human being.”
The Pulitzer committee cited Davis’ opera as “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.”
“Central Park” was the most highly anticipated event of the 2019 Long Beach arts season. Composed by Davis and directed by outgoing LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek, the work employed classic opera style as well as jazz and hip-hop to tell the story of New York youths falsely accused of rape. The men, who said they were deprived of food and sleep by police interrogators, later retracted confessions which they said were coerced. Eventually, they won a $41 million settlement from the city after serving between five and 13 years in prison.
Though most of the events depicted occurred 30 years ago, there was an unmistakable contemporary quality to the material, not only because it dealt with one of the more infamous cases of racial injustice—all five men were African American—but that one of the work’s main antagonists is New York real estate developer Donald Trump who, at one point, is portrayed barking out orders sitting, pants around his ankles, atop a solid gold toilet.
“This happened in 1989 but this is still going on today and a lot of the prejudice is still around now and seems to be resurfacing more in some regards,” Davis said in 2019, a few days before the opera’s premiere at San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theatre. “We are not trying to do a documentary about these five people. That has been done really well. What we want to create is a work of art that is based on their experience.”
Though “Central Park” touched on issues and politics that remain relevant and controversial, what elevated its material from political to artistic statement is that it asked the bigger question of how human beings not only deal with their past but fight becoming imprisoned by it.
“The work itself is absolutely masterful, and deserves to be seen and heard widely, I hope this moment will be the catalyst for further productions,” Rivera said. “It is always risky to be a company that premieres new work, and it is gratifying when those risks pay off with these kinds of acknowledgments for the creators.”
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