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Whose song is this to sing? A new opera about Emmett Till faces scrutiny and protest.

Critics of the collaboration between a Black composer and a White librettist say they’ve heard enough.

From left, Tania León, Mary D. Watkins and Clare Coss. (Kevin A. Richards Photography)

“Emmett Till: A New American Opera,” from composer Mary D. Watkins and librettist Clare Coss, is premiering at John Jay College in New York on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s also facing a firestorm of protest and scrutiny from several communities.

At the core of the concerns is a single question about Emmett Till’s story: Who gets to tell it?

In this case, the Internet media headlines alone told many readers all they needed to know: “The New Emmett Till Opera is Written by a White Woman and Stars a Fictional White Woman. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” read one. “WTH: Playwright Centers Fictional White Woman in Opera Based on Emmett Till’s Death,” read another.

Indeed, “Emmett Till,” a presentation of John Jay College, Opera Noire International and the Harlem Chamber Players, is also a collaboration between composer Mary Watkins, who is Black, and playwright/librettist Clare Coss, who is White.

This latter fact, as well as Coss’s prominent inclusion of a White character (whose gradual change in perspective supplies one of the opera’s narrative arcs), has fueled a swift and vocal backlash against the project.

Last week, the Black Opera Alliance — a coalition of Black opera artists pushing for “racial equity and systemic change” in opera — posted a statement in response to “Emmett Till” to Instagram.

“The Black Opera Alliance empathizes with and supports the Black artists and producers involved in the upcoming production of ‘Emmett Till, The Opera,’” it read, “but we denounce the telling of this historic story by a white woman and from a white vantage point. It is time for Black creators to be given opportunities to expand the operatic canon with authentic storytelling from our own perspectives.”

As of Monday, a petition to cancel the opera started by John Jay College student Mya Bishop and posted to has attracted more than 12,000 signatures.

“Clare Coss has creatively centered her white guilt by using this play to make the racially motivated brutal torture and murder of a 14-year-old child about her white self and her white feelings,” reads the statement accompanying the petition. (In the comments, Bishop adds that she first became aware of the play not through any outreach or announcement by John Jay College but through TikTok.)

Watkins, a Howard University-trained composer with three chamber operas to her name, last week defended Coss’s libretto as well as her right to write it.

“Even though there are many artists of color involved in this project, the critics are assuming that we have had no impact on the final shape of the piece and that the playwright has somehow forced all of us to tell her story,” Watkins wrote in an email interview. “It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the cast members who are African-American.”

Watkins also voiced pain at seeing such harsh criticisms levied at Coss, with whom she’s spent five years collaborating on the opera.

“She is an ally, a life-long activist who has worked hard for 8 long years to develop this piece and to raise the funds to produce the first two performances,” Watkins wrote. “She has been very respectful to me and all the other artists of color on this project. It is my opinion that she has every right as an artist to tell the story of Emmett Till.”

Till was 14 in 1955, when he was accused of flirting with a White woman, Carolyn Bryant, while at her family’s Mississippi grocery store. Days later, Till was abducted, beaten and lynched by two White men — her husband, Roy Bryant, and Roy’s half brother, J.W. Milam — who were tried and acquitted. Later, under protection from double jeopardy, they confessed to the killing.

Till’s killing was a catalyst for national outrage, largely due to the refusal by Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to let her son’s murder vanish from public view. She insisted on an open-casket funeral and permitted photos of her son’s mutilated body to circulate and reach Black readers through publications such as “Jet.”

The gruesome images inspired a shift in the White American consciousness about the cruel reality of racial violence and launched Till-Mobley on a pursuit of justice and a path of activism and education until her death in 2003.

But the images also set the stage for a more general discussion about agency in the age of mass media, which rages on today in a cultural climate where calls for representation, racial equity and systemic change are steering every end of the arts.

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Till-Mobley’s determined ownership of her son’s story — and the four decades she dedicated to sharing it with the world — foreground the power, and necessity, of Black voices telling Black stories.

Black writers and artists have been talking about Till since the day he was killed. One month after Till’s murder in August of 1955, Langston Hughes and composer Jobe Huntley (with whom the poet collaborated on several gospel songs) wrote “Money, Mississippi Blues,” the first of a wave of blues songs to address the killing. That December, L.A. poet, choral director and radio personality “Madame” A.C. Bilbrew wrote “The Death of Emmett Till,” a choral piece that immediately ensconces Till in the context of heroism. In 1956, it was released as a single by the Ramparts, Bilbrew’s words sung by the legendary Scatman Crothers. (If his narration sounds familiar, you probably know him better as Dick Halloran from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”)

Till’s story has also already been brought to life several times onstage: Playwright David Barr III teamed with Till-Mobley to pen his 1999 play “The Face of Emmett Till” (originally titled “The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till”). In 2008, the Chicago author Ifa Bayeza premiered her musical “The Ballad of Emmett Till.”

The life and work of Till-Mobley has also become a subject of artistic fascination. In January, ABC aired “Women of the Movement” an anthology series from writer and producer Marissa Jo Cerar, focused on Till-Mobley and the aftermath of the murder. And October will bring “Till,” a major feature film starring Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie and Whoopi Goldberg as Emmett’s grandmother Alma.

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Over the decades, many White artists have also attempted to place flowers upon Till’s story — and it never goes well. Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Phil Ochs are among the songwriters who have attempted reckonings with the tragedy — each of them aged to varying levels of cringe — Till’s murder made somehow more lurid through the preservative lacquer of folk heroism.

But perhaps the most recent and salient controversy concerning White artists’ engagement with Emmett Till occurred at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, when the White American artist Dana Schutz presented “Open Casket,” an abstract portrait of Till based on the horrific image of his mutilated body. Her portrait was widely condemned across the art world.

“It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” the British-born Black artist Hannah Black wrote in an open letter at the time.

Schutz defended her work in a statement that read in part: “My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother. … Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.”

In a phone interview last week, Coss, 87, recounted the experience of visiting her grandparents in New Orleans as a child, riding the St. Charles streetcar and getting gently reprimanded when she slipped into one of the back “For Colored Only” seats. (”How could a child dictate where an adult sits? It was a jolt to me.”)

She also recalled the vilification she observed firsthand against Alexander “A.P.” Tureaud Jr., the first and only Black undergraduate student in 1953 to attend Louisiana State University, where Coss was a student. She wrote an angry letter to university administration but didn’t mail it.

Emmett Till was murdered while she was still at LSU. Coss recalls a surge of emotion at hearing of Moses Wright’s testimony against his great-nephew’s accused murderers, describing it as a pivotal moment in the direction of her work.

“It was something that impacted me deeply,” she says from her home New York City. “How do I make that my story, too? Because it had — it changed my life. I became an activist as a result.”

“Emmett Till” is Coss’s first libretto, and is based on her own 2013 play, “Emmett, Down in My Heart,” in which she introduced the character Roanne Taylor, a teacher who “represents white people who care but who fail to speak or act in the face of racial injustice.”

The play, she writes in a statement on her personal website, was inspired by “a spiritual mandate” to address the habit of White silence.

“I approached writing about Emmett Till through my conviction that this tragedy is shared in the way the tragic history of our country is shared,” she said. “I mean, White people as perpetrators and witnesses of White supremacy have a stake in this story. Everyone has a stake in this story. It’s an American story, and it’s about the moral failure of the White community.”

BOA member and mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis gives credit to the largely Black creative team involved with the production of “Emmett Till” — which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tania León (for her composition, “Stride”), set to conduct Watkins’s 27-piece orchestra.

But the balance of artistic power, in her view, is still too greatly skewed.

“The librettist is first in battle, making the big decisions, often in collaboration with the composer,” she writes in an email, “but it is their words that dictate what story is being told, who the characters are, who the lead is, which is the antagonist and protagonist, what the didactic purpose of the story is. This is a lot of power.”

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For Garrett McQueen, a bassoonist, executive producer and BOA Leadership Council member, the way Till’s story is told is one thing. The why is another.

“When Mamie Till submitted Emmett’s funeral photo to the press, she wanted to make sure that the world saw how horrific the ecosystem was for Black people,” says McQueen, “she went as far as to say that his injuries were a manifestation of the status quo. This must be considered when engaging the critique of using Till as creative subject matter. Is it about raising awareness, or is it about raising awareness by way of the generating of capital?”

Another issue some creators have with “Emmett Till” is the opera’s seeming alignment with an unfortunate trend in contemporary opera that treats Black suffering as a prerequisite to getting Black stories onstage.

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“Most operatic creators are White/non-Black,” says singer, composer, producer and BOA Leadership Council member James Dargan, “and therefore have no lived experience with Blackness, outside of widely publicized trauma. Therefore, when they write us, they write us in pain, because that’s what they are told and taught.”

“Even the biggest allies often write about us with a sense of pity or righteous indignation,” adds Bryce-Davis, “but it’s not how we necessarily think about ourselves. We know the full breadth of our own experience, and it includes the full gamut of the human experience: joy, sadness, laughter, tears, victory, defeat, love and pain.”

It may be difficult for some opera lovers to entertain the alignments of identity dictating what stories get told and by whom. I give this article five minutes before someone in the comments section claims “OTELLO IS CANCELED.” But consider, as Bryce-Davis suggests, the way things have always been — and the net effect that has on the way things are now.

“We’ve had over 400 years of White people telling our stories from their outsider vantage points,” she says, “relishing the ‘exoticism’ of it all, profiting from the trauma of BIPOC characters, using Black characters as window dressing in White stories. It’s time to hire and invest in Black creatives.”

In the age of intersectionality, there’s perhaps no more helpful metaphor than the intersection itself. Consider the way you slow down, come to a complete stop and check your surroundings. Consider how you signal your intentions before you proceed. Consider how you think to yourself, just barely enough to prevent disaster: Who has the right of way?

“Emmett Till: A New American Opera” runs Wednesday and Thursday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, New York City.