UCSD professor Anthony Davis wins Pulitzer Prize for fiery opera ‘The Central Park Five’
The work, which debuted in 2019 at Long Beach Opera, features Donald Trump (or, rather, an opera singer portraying Trump, circa 1989)
Anthony Davis had an excellent reason for missing part of his Zoom meeting at noon Monday with the other faculty members of UC San Diego’s music department.
The veteran composer received a mid-meeting call, on his home phone, informing him he had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music. The win came for Davis’ “The Central Park Five,” which debuted last June at Long Beach Opera.
It chronicles the racially and politically charged New York trial and conviction of one Latino teenager and four black teens — who were later all exonerated and freed — in the 1989 rape of a young white female investment banker in Central Park. Donald Trump, then a New York real estate magnate, took out full-page newspaper ads at the time that read, in part: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” Accordingly, the Trump character plays a key role in Davis’ opera.
“I’m excited, thrilled and honored that this work has been recognized this way,” Davis said Monday, speaking from the University City home he shares with his opera-singer wife, Cynthia, and their son, Jonah, a professional baseball player.
Noted composer Anthony Davis blurs the lines between jazz, opera, world music, the avant-garde and other styles with unique skill and daring.
In announcing the award for “The Central Park Five” Monday, the Pulitzer committee hailed it as “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”
Spotlighting injustice and focusing on historical figures and events has been a driving force for Davis since 1986, when the New York City Opera debuted his first major work, “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.”
The subjects of his subsequent operas have included the kidnapping and radicalization of heiress Patty Hearst (1992’s “Tania”), a slave rebellion (1997’s “Amistad”) to social injustices perpetrated against Native Americans (2007 “Wakonda’s Dream”). The libretto for “The Central Park Five” was written by Richard Wesley, a New York University associate professor of dramatic writing.
“The Pulitzer win is really a tribute to Long Beach Opera, which was so incredibly supportive of this piece, and the singers who brought so much to their roles” said Davis, 69, who has taught at UC San Diego since 1998.
“And it’s also very exciting for me that you can create political work that has an impact and speak to issues in our society. I’ve done my career creating political works, and I never thought I would ever get a Pulitzer. I hope it will encourage other people to speak their minds and be passionate about what they believe and to express it in their art.”
Davis, who was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt for his Monday Zoom meeting, laughed.
“I definitely never thought I’d win a Pulitzer Prize for an opera that features Donald Trump sitting on a toilet while speaking on the phone,” he said.
“I hope that, in a way, the opera brings to the forefront the idea that Trump’s ascent to power is a present danger and that, from the beginning, he has exploited racial tensions. I also hope that this (Pulitzer) will allow the piece to be presented in other places in America and, perhaps, in other countries.”
What Davis didn’t realize during his Monday Zoom meeting was that his fellow faculty members could hear him reacting to the news of his prestigious honor.
Or, as percussion professor Steven Schick put it: “Anthony’s microphone was open and so we all just heard him pick up the call telling him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize. Best Zoombomb ever!”
Davis sounded both amused and embarrassed when told of Schick’s observation.
“I thought I put the Zoom meeting on my iPad on mute,” Davis said with a chuckle.
As skilled a pianist as he is a composer, Davis has more than 15 non-opera solo albums to his credit. He was a 20-year-old student at Yale University in 1971 when he turned down an offer to join the Grateful Dead.
Davis went on to establish himself as a cutting-edge jazz composer and band leader before starting to focus on opera in the 1980s. Full of unexpected leaps and turns, his richly textured music can be warm and inviting, dense and thorny, sometimes almost concurrently.
Drawing from jazz, contemporary classical, various World Music styles and more — including R&B and hip-hop in “The Central Park Five” — Davis creates an aural universe all his own. What results has earned him effusive praise from others, including Schick.
“Anthony is a master at listening to the world — the enormous variety of styles, cultures and musical impulses of many times and places — and distilling from them cogent, pointed works of art that illuminate the most important qualities of our time and place,” Schick said Monday.
Davis has had commissions from Opera Omaha, Long Beach Opera and other companies that have staged productions of his consistently daring work. His Pulitzer win for “The Central Park Five” may bring a wider audience for the work.
He is only the third UC San Diego faculty member to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, according to a campus spokesman. Fellow composer Roger Reynolds won the 1989 Pulitzer for music, while Rae Armantrout won the 2010 Pulitzer for poetry.
“All I thought about was making this the best piece I could,” Davis said of his Pulitzer-winning work.
“And I wanted to do justice to the (real) Central Park Five and to represent and tell their story, so it was important for me to have the music represent their story. I met them in Los Angeles last June, just before the opening at Long Beach Opera, at an ACLU luncheon that they attended, along with the cast members from the opera and from the cast of (Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix TV series) ‘When They See Us.’”
Davis is now composing new operas about, respectively, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma and the fatal 2015 shootings by Dylann Roof of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.
He is also working on a musical adaptation of the children’s book “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” which is set at the U.S.-Mexico border and addresses current immigration issues. His adaptation will likely feature a version of Donald Trump.
“I’m trying to decide,” Davis said, “if he’ll be a crocodile or a snapping orange turtle.”
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