Review: ‘The Central Park Five’ Turns Injustice Into Opera

Review: ‘The Central Park Five’ Turns Injustice Into Opera


SAN PEDRO, Calif. — Opera lends stature to its characters. (Even to its villains.) It expands their scope; it ennobles them.

This can cause problems when the art form turns to recent history and its contentious figures. It was the main objection to the title character in John Adams’s “Nixon in China” and to the Palestinian terrorists depicted in his “The Death of Klinghoffer”: The kind of immortality opera grants was being extended to those who didn’t deserve it.

Well, no one could say that the quintet of protagonists of “The Central Park Five,” a jazz-infused new opera by Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley that was premiered on Saturday at the Warner Grand Theater here by Long Beach Opera, don’t deserve it. These are boys — and then men — who earned their nobility, their place on the opera stage.

[This summer, opera grapples with race.]

Their wrenching journey, going back 30 years now, has long been known. But it has reached a broad new audience this month with Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series “When They See Us,” an almost unbearably intense treatment of the story.

When a white woman was raped and brutally beaten in Central Park in 1989, five black teenagers were accused and convicted of the crime, based on confessions later found to have been coerced. It was not until 2002, when another man confessed and DNA evidence backed him up, that the judgments against the five were vacated; in 2014, New York City paid $41 million to settle a lawsuit brought by them.

It is a tale that unfortunately never gets old, and it has fresh resonance in the era of Black Lives Matter and renewed attention to issues of police misconduct, wrongful convictions and mass incarceration. What’s more, one of its crucial supporting characters has turned up again in the news, to say the least: Donald Trump, who crusaded against the Central Park Five as they stood accused and insisted on their guilt as recently as the 2016 presidential campaign.

So it’s no coincidence that this story is being told by artists today. What is a coincidence is that “The Central Park Five,” with a score by Mr. Davis and a libretto by Mr. Wesley, is opening within a month of “When They See Us.”

But this isn’t the first time that the operas of Mr. Davis, a noted jazz composer and performer, have been at the vanguard of more popular culture. His “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” anticipated Spike Lee’s blockbuster biopic. “Amistad” opened days before Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film of the same name. There was a sense in these works, particularly the seething “X,” of opera being newly used to give resonance — literally and figuratively — to real-life events.

While opera can’t compete with the screen for verisimilitude, it can provide “the opportunity to explore the emotional impact beyond the mere facts,” as Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera, wrote in a news release for “The Central Park Five.” The art form can be particularly arresting when it teases out those subtleties in stories we’ve known primarily as black-and-white reportage — when it imagines Malcolm X or Richard Nixon’s private musings and sets them to music.

This is what Mr. Davis, among others, have shown that opera can do. But “The Central Park Five” doesn’t, or doesn’t always. Forthright and impassioned, it makes clear the crushing injustice of the situation, but provides little emotional nuance beyond that.

Part of the problem is its treatment of the title group: The opera has a Greek chorus as an unwieldy main character. Singing largely in unison or in counterpoint ensemble, the five (played by Derrell Acon, Cedric Berry, Orson Van Gay, Nathan Granner and Bernard Holcomb) never have the chance to come to life as individuals, either in music or words.

And the evocation of their life together as friends in Harlem is too weak to make us really miss it after all goes wrong. Mr. Mitisek’s simple, bland production — movable door frames and projected tabloid headlines — doesn’t help.

Opening with a saturated, scratchy chord that fractures into jitters, the score, conducted by Leslie Dunner, is most interesting in brief instrumental interludes. The scenes are generally painted with urbane, rhythmically punchy big-band-style jazz, beefed up with strings, under declamatory vocal lines. (Unlike in some contemporary operas, the text is delivered with consistent clarity.) But in the instrumental passages between those scenes, the musical flesh melts away to reveal scattered flecks of instrumentation and an electronic haze — a scraping, buzzing sonic landscape that swiftly evokes the ominousness of the story.

As in Mr. Davis’s earlier operas, solos are highlights: The mother of one of the five (the mezzo-soprano Lindsay Patterson) pours out her heart in a simmering, sad torch song. But even here, when the music is so alluring, there’s little sense of personality or the unexpected.

An unnamed district attorney (the mezzo Jessica Mamey), clearly meant to suggest the prosecutor Linda Fairstein, isn’t quite as much of a monster as she could be (or as the character of Ms. Fairstein is in “When They See Us”). But neither composer nor librettist really develops her character. A more stock villain is a multipurpose male character called the Masque (the baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis), who shape-shifts from a bigoted reporter (“Harlem,” he sings, “a black and tan fantasy that attracts me and repels me all the same”) to a tourist to a police officer.

And, sung by a high tenor, the stereotype of operatic arrogance, Mr. Trump (Thomas Segen) is portrayed as a sour blowhard. His part in the story has been expanded beyond the historical record, to the point that he is seen acting as a kind of Svengali to the police and prosecutors working on the case. The second act opens with him sitting on a golden toilet, a moment that’s intended as satirical relief but comes off as overkill.

Surely we can never have enough reminders of the injustice done to these five young men. But Mr. Davis and Mr. Wesley’s blunt work doesn’t show off the depth and heightened feeling that opera could add to what we already know.

The Central Park Five

Through June 23 at the Warner Grand Theater, San Pedro, Calif.; longbeachopera.org.



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