Opera Profile: Anthony Davis’ Pulitzer-Prize Winner ‘The Central Park Five’

By Gillian Reinhard
(Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “The Central Park Five” recounts the harrowing story of five teenagers falsely accused and imprisoned for years before their exoneration in 2002.

Composer Anthony Davis and librettist Richard Wesley bring the infamous story to life, offering an operatic commentary on racial bias in the United States.  The work premiered June 15, 2019 at California’s Long Beach Opera Company in a. production by Andreas Mitisek. At the opera’s premiere, Davis championed young singers to take on the five teenage roles and appointed Leslie Dunner to conduct the score.

In May, the opera was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Davis had premiered an earlier version of the opera, entitled “Five” back in 2016 with the Trilogy Company.

Short Plot Summary

“The Central Park Five” is the story of five teenagers (four African-Americans and one Hispanic-American) accused of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. The young men confessed to the crime after hours of interrogation without legal representation or guidance from parents. While the statements contradicted each other, the confessions stood as evidence to find all five teenagers guilty.

After over a decade of imprisonment, the actual perpetrator of the crime, Matias Reyes, was found guilty and the “Central Park Five” received financial compensation from the City of New York.

The opera features the five teenagers and their parents as they undergo trial and imprisonment. The opera also depicts Reyes, the prosecutor, the detective, and Donald Trump, who had purchased several newspaper ads demanding that the state return to capital punishment.

The work is infused with classical, jazz, and gospel styles, featuring multiple ensemble pieces between the “Central Park Five” and their parents. Davis’ score also features several musical interludes between the action.

In a more humorous scene, Trump appears at the opening of Act two on a golden toilet to express his approval of the death penalty.

Overall, however, the opera is a serious commentary of injustice. The opera concludes on a somber note, with the piece, “Every day is a struggle.” 

Watch and Listen

Nathan Granner as Korey Wise, a member of the five sentenced to an adult prison at age 16

Here are some excerpts from “Five.”

Here is a look at the Long Beach Opera in rehearsal for the world premiere.


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