Since his pioneering first opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” in 1985, Anthony Davis has helped give American opera — often and importantly African American opera — a conscience.
He’s tackled the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (“Tania”), the mutiny of African slaves (“Amistad”) and the plight of Native Americans in Nebraska (“Wakonda’s Dream”), in each case capturing the pulse of the time through a special blend of eloquence and unblinking righteousness.
On Saturday night, the Central Park Five got the Davis treatment in his new opera, given its premiere by Long Beach Opera at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
The first thing to be said is that while “The Central Park Five” covers much of the same territory as the new Netflix series “When They See Us,” Davis’ Kafka-esque opera needs to be nothing like Ava DuVernay’s film. Opera happens to be a poor vehicle for picturing events like this notorious case in which five Harlem teenagers, four black and one Latino, were convicted of the rape and nearly fatal beating of a female jogger late one night in 1989. There was no evidence, just coerced confessions from four of the defendants.
Opera, moreover, needs no pretense for fact. It prosecutes through sensibility. You can shut your eyes and close your mind, but not your ears. Consequently, Davis’ supercharged score grippingly conveys the claustrophobia of a racist legal system and society from which there was, for these five innocent boys and their families, no exit.
In a pre-concert conversation with LBO’s artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, who directed the production and handled its video design, Davis accused New York in the 1980s of the crime of “African American invisibility.” The police needed immediate suspects for a high-profile assault, and any of some 30 black youth in the park that night would do. None of the boys knew one another. But once arrested, they were portrayed by the press as a gang of hoodlums.
In his first pronouncements as a potential politician, a New York developer took out newspaper ads calling for reinstating the death penalty for the five and helping to generate mass hysteria. The four boys under age 16 served the maximum six or seven years in juvenile detention. Korey Wise, who was 16, endured 13 years on Rikers Island. All were eventually proved innocent when a serial rapist admitted the crime, and DNA evidence corroborated his testimony. Even so, that New York developer, now the president of the United States, has never stopped accusing the boys of the crime.
With a prosaic libretto by Richard Wesley and a production of limited means that relies on television and newspaper documentation flashed on movable screens, Davis has his own series of obstacles. He also noted in the pre-concert discussion that in an earlier iteration of the work (with the Trilogy opera company in New Jersey in 2016) he had expected to have a double cast — five as boys, and then five as grown men after incarceration — but he arrived at rehearsals to find only one set of singers who had to be both.
Davis graciously said that gave him new focus, but it didn’t look that way Saturday, creating confusion, given the documentary nature of Mitesek’s production and the conventional nature of Wesley’s text. (In the past, Davis has worked with the likes of poet Yusef Komunyakaa on “Wakonda’s Dream.”)
What LBO did offer, however, was musical excellence, with a strong cast, an orchestra that could cook and viscerally stunning conducting from Leslie Dunner. Even bland words went straight to the gut.
Most of the opera, which is in two acts, follows the five through their arbitrary apprehension, inappropriate questioning, dubious trial, conviction and harsh sentencing. The boys react much of the time in quintet, voices blending in disbelief and outrage. The most effective operatic innovation is the creation of the Masque, who is less a character than the embodiment of white racism, be it the police, a reporter or various others.
The second act begins with tenor Thomas Segen seated on his gold toilet, calling the press, comic relief but also a caricature of the president that doesn’t exploit his influence back then on the public. Derrell Acon (who plays Antron McCray), Cedric Barry (Yusef Salaam), Orson Van Gay (Raymond Santana), Nathan Granner (Korey Wise) and Bernard Holcomb (Kevin Richardson) may not be given the opportunity to reveal character growth, let alone explore individuality, but they make a compelling team.
Babatunde Akinboboye (Raymond’s father and the real rapist, Matias Reyes), Ashley Faatoalia (Antron’s father), Joelle Lamarre (Antron’s mother and Kevin’s mother), Lindsay Patterson (Yusef’s mother) and Jessica Mamey (the district attorney) all have their moments of intense drama. More intense still is the orchestra, with Davis’ score creating the atmosphere and producing tension, terror, dismay and, in the most revealing moments, tenderness and hope.
Davis’ means are many. His hats include progressive jazz pianist and faculty member at UC San Diego. He puts a good deal of what makes American music American in his score, particularly roiling jazz. The growling trombone and heckling trumpet could be characters themselves.
The opera ends with the five out of prison, awarded a multimillion-dollar settlement from the state of New York and living as public figures (who met the cast at an ACLU lunch last week, but who did not attend the premiere). They look victorious. Then, in a split second, the music and their expressions change to quizzical.
Suddenly, we understand the implications. These are men whose control of their lives was taken from them. But they have been anointed with the limelight. What didn’t kill them has has made them stronger. They now have the resources to play a role in society they neither expected nor asked for. They are no longer invisible.
Long Beach Opera’s ‘The Central Park Five’
Where: Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday