Portland Opera brings ‘The Central Park Five’ to life
The 1989 ‘Central Park Five’ case has been linked to a variety of narrative packages over the years: documentary maestro Ken Burns approached him in 2012; Ava Duvernay dramatized it for Netflix in 2019. But a month after Duvernay’s version went live, a decidedly different presentation of the story premiered at the Long Beach Opera in Orange County.
Reinforced from a New Jersey workshop in 2016, The Central Park Five, by acclaimed composer Anthony Davis, blasted the tragic dimensions of the real-life story into the stuff of arias and cadenzas. Critically Acclaimed followed, and the Pulitzer Committee took notice: the play was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music, becoming the 11th opera to claim the title. Now in 2022 he is coming to the Newmark Theater in a new production of Portland Opera.
“The beauty of telling this story like an opera is that the music is universal,” says Nataki Garrett, who takes a break from her perch as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival direct the production. “Music enters your mind and affects your heart, and it deepens your empathy long after you leave the opera.”
For those unfamiliar with the real story: In April 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili was assaulted in Central Park while jogging. After a high-profile court case, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray and Korey Wise – black and Latino teenagers aged 14 to 16 – were found guilty of the attack, each serving a six- to 13 years. Then, in 2002, an inmate in upstate New York confessed to assaulting Meili, and the convictions of Salaam, Santana, Richardson, McCray and Wise were overturned.
Davis’ opera features all five boys, also checking in on their parents, the actual abuser, the district attorney on the case – and Donald Trump, who at the time was pulling out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling (obviously) for the execution of teenagers. There are obvious risks in mounting a production that features such a well-covered lightning rod as a character, but Garrett is fearless. “The Central Park 5 tells how five children experienced a system designed to oppress them. Trump wrote himself in history,” she said. “I treated the material and the character as it was written, but you have to understand that it is not the story.”
The biggest challenge? “Time,” Garrett said. The whole rehearsal process for The Central Park Five—a two and a half hour opera with a cast of 12 – lasted just over three weeks after a huge COVID surge. (Until the tech, the company performed its vocal acrobatics in masks.) “New stories in all forms need time to evolve,” says Garrett, acknowledging the lack of time. “We did it anyway.”
Musically (and perhaps predictably), The Central Park 5 is a departure from your Lady Butterflys or your Bohemians. It loops through the sounds and rhythms that Davis has played with in his previous works for the stage, including X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Wakonda’s Dream. “Mr. Davis really manages to create a very evocative sound universe of the time,” says Kazem Abdullah, the production’s conductor. “He doesn’t just use late modernist music. how to integrate jazz; there’s a part of the opera called ‘We Are the Streets’, and it’s kind of a groovy funk section. The 20-person orchestra under Abdullah includes both a baritone saxophone and a Kurzweil synthesizer.
As opening night approaches, Abdullah is thrilled to bring such an untraditional spectacle to patrons of the Portland Opera. “There’s a reason the play won the Pulitzer Prize,” he says. “It’s an incredible composition and an incredible opera. And there are not so many operas that tell stories that still deal with current issues.
Garrett, too, notes contemporary resonances. “We live in a society that still allows people to have these experiences,” she says. “These men are still alive and still living in the wake of the terrible injustice they suffered as children. We are honored to hold their stories and speak their collective truth.
7:30 p.m. Friday and Sunday, March 18, 24, and 26, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 20, Newmark Theatre, $35 to $210