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Portland Opera takes on a contemporary racial case as part of its new emphasis on social justice.

COURTESY PHOTO: SILJA TOBIN/PORTLAND OPERA - Conductor Kazeem Abdullah and director Nataki Garrett work with the ensemble during rehearsals for "The Central Park Five" by Portland Opera. Garrett is the artistic director for Oregon Shakespeare Festival.Opera meets modern-day real life when "The Central Park Five" stages at Newmark Theatre, March 18-26.

A case of wrongful conviction and social injustice, the story centers on five Black and Latino teenagers falsely accused of rape and assault of a white female and coerced into confession and, after serving their sentences, exonerated through DNA evidence. The high-profile case from the late 1980s in New York City spiraled out of control, turning the accused and their families into victims of prejudice and exposed the failed court of public opinion.

DAVISAnthony Davis, who composed the music, and Richard Wesley, who wrote the libretto, are the creators of the opera "The Central Park Five," and Portland Opera brings it to the local stage. Portland Opera has committed to telling such stories as a way to learn from the past.

"Ultimately a story of freedom, 'The Central Park Five' champions our five innocent heroes' refusal to plead guilty on their paths to exoneration," Portland Opera stated, referring to the wrongfully convicted Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise.

WESLEYThe opera has won a Pulitzer Prize. It's directed by Nataki Garrett, who's the artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and conducted by Kazeem Abdullah, both making their Portland Opera debuts.

In addition to performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 18, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 20, 7:30 p.m. March 24 and 7:30 p.m. March 26, there'll be a special question-answer conversation with Anthony Davis, 7 p.m. Thursday, March 17, at Newmark Theatre. It's free to attend. Digital access to the opera will be available starting April 8.

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The Tribune caught up with Sue Dixon, general director, and Priti Gandhi, artistic director, for some thoughts on "The Central Park Five":

Tribune: Opera and modern real-life stories haven't been paired often, what makes "The Central Park Five" opera compelling and fit for stage and opera?

Gandhi: There are so many reasons why this story translates so powerfully to the operatic medium. I've always believed that opera as a storytelling journey gets past our logical mind with the immersive experience that it is. This story, in particular, resonates for us at the deepest level of our shared humanity -- and as we have seen, we are still grappling with the aftermath.

George Floyd's murder shows us that we've barely scratched the surface of the societal growth we need to accomplish together.

When you tell these stories in the medium of music, in live performance, by creators who want to show us what we are not yet facing, you get a powerful way to shake us loose of our resistance and open up to a resonance with these young men. Opera will always be a medium of the most raw human expression, at its core -- the human voice. These men used their voices and were not heard. Opera gives their voices a new way to get past our divisions and hear them anew.

Tribune: It's such a deviation from what Portland Opera has done in the past. Is that exciting? Challenging?

Dixon: I would like to think about it more in terms of expanding our repertoire. Opera is an ever-evolving art form, and we are excited by all the new works that are being produced in our field.

As our community continues to evolve and change, so must our offerings. We will continue to present the traditional canon and also present new works by living composers. We have the most loyal patrons, some of whom have been with us for over 50 years. They love the great masterpieces by Puccini, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner and we want to honor them by continuing to present those operas.

We also love the new works and it's exciting to have living composers and librettists available to discuss the intentionality of their work. Change is always hard, and while there has been a perception that we have done a complete 180 presenting only contemporary works you must remember that this season was a ramp out of COVID, one that was designed with financial parameters in place. We want to do it all.

Tribune: Opera can bring out emotions in people; when people hear the singing in "The Central Park Five," what do you believe they will feel?

Gandhi: It is my hope that they will feel the deepest level of connection with the human experience in this story. Empathy with our fellow humans is the way we must move forward to making sure this never happens again. I hope our audiences will also feel the joy in sections underlining Anthony Davis' score, as well as the pain. The best operas find ways to journey through both, and settle inside. I think experiencing this opera creates a depth we need now, more than ever.

Dixon: The human voice evokes so many emotions, as it's storytelling in the purest form. How many of us hear a song that instantly transports us to feel joy, sadness, or evoke a particular memory. Opera is so subjective and highly emotional and everyone's experience is different. I hope they walk away from this experience feeling inspired to activate change, and not accept the past as the norm.

You can't tell this story without understanding the gravity of injustice, and the music tells that story in such a beautiful way. There is one scene that gets me every time. The interrogation of the boys is an intense scene and the music adds to the chaotic injustice that we're witnessing. It's a heartbreaking scene and composer Anthony Davis does it in such a masterful way. It slowly peels away the layers of the system and injustice that plagues this country. It's no wonder that Mr. Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for this piece.

Tribune: What do you hear from subscribers and fans about Portland Opera putting on "The Central Park Five," and the opera's emphasis on social justice issues in general?

Dixon: We are hearing a range of responses. We hear a great deal of excitement about the new pieces we are doing, like "The Central Park Five," and support of our newly articulated mission and values. We also hear from those who want us to stick to only presenting works from the traditional canon.

Change is hard. The organization has been around for over 58 years and, for much of our history, most of our productions have been presented by European composers of the past that drew on social and political issues of their own times.

We're committed to adding to the traditional canon by presenting works by 21st century composers, and they, too, are drawing on social issues occurring in our country in our time.

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