Angela Allen

Absolutely stunning. Riveting. The best and most ambitious production Portland Opera has presented in my 31 years of reviewing. PO continues to up the ante.

I’m referring to the 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Central Park Five, which has two more performances March 24 and March 26 at the Newmark Theatre. Premiered at the fearlessly innovative Long Beach Opera in 2019, this all-Portland Opera production is a huge show based on the enormous issue of miscarried justice and racial stereotypes. The resulting opera is huge as well, just short of overwhelming, with video projections, a synthesizer, a chamber orchestra, dark driving music, a two-level set separating the world of the oppressed from the oppressors, a large talented cast of singers, and striking lighting.

And its effect is hugely emotional, with the music proving an exact DNA match for the words.

Librettist Richard Welsey, who came up with the words before the music was considered, sought a composer; Anthony Davis, 71, nominated himself and got the job. A renowned opera composer and jazz pianist, Davis’ best-known opera is X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

The Central Park Five is about the “modern-day lynching mentality” (as Oregon Arts Watch writer Brett Campbell calls it in his astute analysis), and tells the true-life story of five Black and Hispanic teens who were wrongly accused and convicted–without DNA evidence or witnesses—of raping a young woman in 1989 in New York’s Central Park. “Black kids, brown kids, what do you expect?” a character sings from the top tier, while below, the teenagers join in the hopeful and harmonious “This is My World,” dreaming of a better one than their Harlem home. They soon segue into the hip-hopish “We are the Freaks” as they run along with a crowd of half-thinking boys and burst into Central Park to make mischief–referred to as “wilding”–on a steaming summer night before the tragedy unfolds.

After the rape, the youths are picked up, badgered, and coerced into false confessions, deprived of legal and parental help when questioned by police, and when sentenced, four end up in juvenile lock-up for five to seven years. The eldest, Korey Wise (tenor Nathan Granner), who was 16 at the time of the incident, was tried and sentenced as an adult and received nine years at Rikers Island. 

Then there’s the Donald Trump character. “Let’s nail these thugs!” sings much-thinner-than-Trump tenor Christian Sanders, who masterfully caricatures the blowhard real estate mogul with his spookily unstoppable hand gestures, his saunter and slump, his jutting chin, and Queens twang. Trump used the incident to drum up law-and-order support–and to start his run for President, as Friderike Heuer writes in her OAW piece “Art as a Tool for Justice.” At the time, he called for the death penalty for the teens in full-page newspaper ads. When the young men were exonerated in 2002–after the real rapist Matias Reyes (baritone Babatunde Akinboboye) confessed, and there was a DNA match–the five young men were awarded $40 million by the City of New York.

Trump never took back his words in real life. As a character–more a caricature—he provided comic relief, and the piece thankfully did not spin around him. Still, it was thrilling to boo him, which the ecstatic audience did with pleasure at curtain call.

Money is never enough when lives and innocence have been unjustly stolen, and the opera brings home those emotions over and over. As one reviewer said, composer Davis (and librettist Welsey) brought a conscience to opera—and, I might add, lots of tears, eye-opening revelations and reflection.

Creatives and cast

Almost everyone involved in the production’s artistic team and cast is Black. This includes the cast of victims and their families; maestro Kazem Abdullah, who recently conducted the Met’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones; stage director Nataki Garrett, who doubles as Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director; projection designer Rasean Davonté Johnson; sound designer Brian Mohr; costume designer Wanda Walden; and lighting designer Jason Lynch. I bring this up because an almost all-Black production has been very uncommon on the opera stage until recently. Things are changing, though, and lately exceptions include the 2019 Blue at Seattle Opera earlier this month (read James Bash’s ArtsWatch review here) and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Boneswhich opened the Met’s 2021-2022 season and was the 142-year-old company’s first staged Black-composed opera. Portland Opera presented a digital production of Journeys to Justice in spring 2021 featuring searing stories about the Black experience with a mostly Black cast. It was curated by Damien Geter, PO’s artistic advisor and interim music director (read my review for ArtsWatch here).

Divided worlds

Scenic designer and former architect Mariana Sanchez Hernandez created a stark set of concrete benches and blocks that worked with the two-level configuration envisioned by stage director Garrett. The bi-leveled staging convincingly expressed the opera’s environment metaphorically and visually. On the lower level, the young Black victims and their Harlem families dwell. That’s where they goof off early in the opera–and where later they are arrested, interrogated, sentenced and incarcerated–while the top level is the domain of the white decision-making world, who in this opera’s case are triple-A oppressors.

The top is also the “home” of the fluid ubiquitous character, The Masque, who is sort of like The Man—the guy in power, yet a masquerader. He switches roles from reporter to policeman to judge. Sung and acted superbly by versatile Los Angeles baritone Johnathan McCullough, he seamlessly moves in and out of the various roles, and he descends to the lower level to do his power-hungry jobs. Conversely, when Korey Wise is released from Rikers in 2002, discarding his orange prison uniform on the stage floor, he ascends to the top tier and sings “Who is going to pay me back?“ For a moment, the power structure shifts.

Though all the singers were good, a special shout out to the tiny Jazmine Olwalia, the mezzo-soprano who performed the role of Sharon Salaam, the mother of the youth Yusef Salaam (sung by bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock). Feisty and persistent, she never gives up advocating for her son. “They don’t know his heart,” she sings. “They only know the picture they paint and how he fits in the frame.”

Another mezzo, Hannah Ludwig, had the unsympathetic part of the pushy prodding white assistant district attorney. She shaped her lines flawlessly and moved like the late-’80s power person she portrayed. The New York Times called her voice “chocolatey and large yet with focus and agility,” and I can’t do better than that.

Music and the boys/men

The boys doubled as men, and it was primarily through costumes, gestures and posture that you could tell when the boys became men. Aside from Allicock as Yusef Salaam and Nathan Granner as Korey Wise, others were tenor Bernard Holcomb as Kevin RIchardson, tenor Victor Ryan Robertson as Raymond Santana and bass-baritone Donovan Singletary as Anton McCray. They sang to difficult, mostly atonal mid-century modernist music that New Yorker critic Alex Ross described as “closer to a symphonic jazz score, in the tradition of Ellington’s long-form pieces and, in its more seething stretches, of 1960 (avant-garde jazz) musicians Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor,” according to OAW colleague Campbell’s research. I am at a loss to describe the score better than that. Kudos go out to musicians and vocalists, and most significantly to conductor Abdullah who pulled it all together, for interpreting the complex music so well.

To be sure, there was very little melody, but in its place, rhythm and propulsion–underlined by an ominous bass line–prevailed. Add to that plenty of percussion and winds, occasional sax and brass, vibes, piano and a few strings.

I will pick one bone with the opera: We never get to know the victims very well, though they are the main characters. Still, they are not distinctively or deeply drawn characters. They were humanely portrayed, but they came off more as a bunch than as individuals. But that was the opera’s shortcoming, not the production’s, and certainly artistic choices were made along the way for that to have occurred. After all, the two-act opera was 2.5 hours long without character development. This shortcoming didn’t prevent me from tearing up with empathy for the boys and their families, and with outrage for our country’s toxic systemic, systematic and savage racism.

This story about the appalling miscarriage of justice in itself is dramatic and harrowing. It made ideal contemporary material for an opera. ThCentral Park Five is mostly tragic but ends in subdued joy with the exoneration of the men, though the tragedies and travesties of racial and social injustice continue.