Davis has a history of making operas about subjects that also attracted film directors: his first opera was “X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X),” and he followed with “Amistad.” On a red-letter weekend for African American opera — Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” based on Charles M. Blow’s memoir, also had its world premiere this weekend at the Opera Theater of St. Louis — Davis spoke with us about working hip-hop into opera, the field’s relationship to African American composers, and the challenges of turning Donald Trump into an opera character.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: You keep writing operas on topics that also become big films, and always before the films came out. When you started "The Central Park Five," did you know about "When They See Us," Ava du Vernay's Netflix series about the story?
A: Anthony Davis: I started working on “The Central Park Five” in 2014. [More recently,] I saw that Netflix was going to do this. With “X,” I did it five years before Spike Lee. [Steven] Spielberg was weird about “Amistad.” He actually pushed up the [film’s] opening in Chicago. [Davis’s opera “Amistad” was commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.] The film opened two weeks earlier in Chicago than anywhere else.
Q: How did you decide to write an opera about the Central Park Five?
A: I was speaking to the Trilogy Opera Company, a primarily African American opera company based in Newark, about an opera. I wanted to do Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman.” The director said, I have this libretto [that playwright/screenwriter] Richard Wesley wrote about the Central Park Five; would you be interested in reading it? I thought it had a lot of potential. I had never done an opera with five protagonists before. I had to figure out how to do that. I was fascinated by group singing. Then I began thinking about that period in time, Take 6 and a lot of the boy groups that were popular in that time. I started looking at what I could do with close harmony for five voices.
One of the things I thought was fascinating about the Central Park Five: 1989 was the time when hip-hop was becoming mainstream. Even the terminology “wilding in the park” came from the fact they were singing [Tone Lōc’s] “Wild Thing.” All the kids were singing the song.
Q: Did you actually use hip-hop in the opera?
A: Yes and no. What I decided to do, I borrowed, the way hip-hop samples music from earlier; I tried to use funk grooves that they might use. And I tried to capture a little bit of what hip-hop does with rhythm and speech. I have this section of the opera called “We are the freaks who own the night;” the way the lyrics tumble out, it’s very much inspired by the way hip-hop works.
Q: Has the opera field's attitude toward race changed over the years?
A: I think there’s an openness now. Opera America has been a great advocate for more diversity in opera. I’ve been a consultant for them, encouraging more composers of color to work in opera. 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. It’s also important musically to broaden the aesthetic of what opera can be.
Q: You've written operas on topics that had nothing to do with race, like "Tania," about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Do you sometimes feel there's an expectation that as a black composer you are supposed to write about race-related topics?
A: I think there is an expectation. You can be useful in different kinds of ways. Some operas I did without a commission, just music I wanted to do. I think about a lot of things, not just about race relations. I decided to do an adaptation of King Lear: a woman who has Alzheimer’s, three daughters vying for guardianships, and the fool is her dead husband. I worked with the playwright Allan Havis, who, like me, teaches at the University of California San Diego; that was a fabulous collaboration, and “Lear on the 2nd Floor” premiered at UCSD in 2013.
Now I’m doing a new opera for the Tulsa Opera in 2021, with Thulani Davis, about the Tulsa race massacre in 1921.
Q: Is Donald Trump an actual character in "The Central Park Five"?
A: Yes, he is. It was important to have him in the piece. I did my first presentation of the opera at Trilogy three days after the election, and when [the character of] Trump appeared onstage, everyone booed. It was almost like doing Renaissance theater: a character with a mask comes out and, “Boo.” That was fascinating and terrifying. I realized what a terrifying person he is. Sometimes it gets lost in “SNL” comedy: we make fun of this guy, he’s a buffoon, and funny, and we forget how dangerous he is.
He’s a tenor. Listen to his voice; he has to be a tenor, no question about that. A friend of mine asked, How do you write for Trump? I said, he has to be a tenor; he has to repeat himself a lot; and he never completes a sentence. I didn’t quite do that in the opera.