Opera Profile: Anthony Davis’ ‘Amistad’

By David Salazar

Anthony Davis’ “Amistad” didn’t have the greatest of premieres.

The opera, which first appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997, received middling reviews.

The opera, which featured a libretto by Thulani Davis, then underwent a major revision and was then presented at the Spoleto Festival USA in 2008. Of this newer version, Opera Today noted that the work was “much leaner, more focused, and dramatically far more effective than the original. And in so doing they [the Davises] created not only a masterpiece of American opera, but further a work that — against a contemporary horizon darkened by undercurrents of racism — resonates today far beyond Memminger and Spoleto USA.”

Short Plot Synopsis

Onboard the “Amistad,” the Trickster God has lost his way and is weakened and blinded by the Middle Passage journey. He asks for help from the Goddess of Waters and hears the navigator and a slaver scheming.

African leader Cinque discovers that the ship is now headed North and not to Africa.

When the ship runs aground, a seaman discovers the ship and seizes it with the intention of selling the Africans as slaves. The navigator and slaver tell a story of mutiny and claim to own the Africans, who insist on being free.

The captives are sent to jail as newspaper reporters look on. Several of the captives, including Margru speak of their challenges and vow to never reveal where they are from in order to protect their families.

An abolitionist, Tappan, pleads with Adams to be a lead lawyer for the Africans. The former president considers.

During the trial, the Navigator tells the story of being awakened by the touch of a blade while the President and Spaniard reveal a plot to send the captives to Cuba is the Africans win in court. Antonio tells of the captain’s death.

The Abolitionists seek out a translator to tell the captives’ tale. The Goddess of Waters, invoked by the tale, recalls the Middle Passage. They explain that the Africans mutinied against the ship’s crew with the intention of returning home. At the close of the trial, the Captives’ case is won and they are permitted to return home.

Watch and Listen

Here are some excerpts from the opera.

Listen to “They Come as if from the Heavens.”

And check out “To Own One’s Life, One’s Every Breath.”


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