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UCA commissioning opera about 1957 school crisis, with help from Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Posted by Max Brantley on Thu, Jun 5, 2014 at 7:23 AM

WORDS AND MUSIC: UCA is working on an opera about the Central High crisis.
  • WORDS AND MUSIC: UCA is working on an opera about the Central High crisis.

I'm a day late in mentioning this New York Times article on an artistic enterprise underway at the University of Central Arkansas — an opera built on the story of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High.

The school is in the process of commissioning the composer Tania León and the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to create a work about the incident, and hopes to present the premiere in September 2017, around the 60th anniversary of the events.

Rollin Potter, the former dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at the university, began the commissioning process and agreed to stay on to see it through. He said on Tuesday that he had selected Ms. León to compose the work after reviewing recordings by several composers with members of the music faculty. Ms. León brought Mr. Gates into the project as its librettist.

Gates told the Times:

“I watched the integration of Central High School on TV with my parents when I was 7 years old,” Mr. Gates said, “and those images have stuck with me. Horrific things for a child to see. I wrote about it in ‘Colored People,’ which is a memoir on my childhood, before I went off to Yale. So this is quite exciting to me.”

The work would premier at UCA, but the hope is that it would then be staged by major opera companies.

Disclosure: A variety of grants are helping to underwrite the project, including one from the Darragh Foundation, on whose board I sit.

Comments (14)

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Although I am not cultured enough to appreciate opera and it makes my skin crawl. I wish them much success!!!

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Posted by Screen name taken on 06/05/2014 at 2:22 PM

It should have been a country-music musical,created with an equal eye to Oklahoma! and West Side Story. That way the majority of your population would understand it.
go hawgs.

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Posted by eLwood on 06/05/2014 at 2:52 PM

snt, I'm thinking that it may be something along the line of "Porgy and Bess", an opera using more American Black music forms. Certainly, nothing like Italian grand opera where the worst of the shrieking occurs or nothing like the, seemingly interminable, Wagnerian operas where the fat lady in the viking helmet sings at the end of a 4-hour snore fest. Just a guess on my part though...

Having said all that, I'm not an expert on opera by any means -- although I've attended a few. Like everything else, they're easier to appreciate the more you understand what they're trying to do. The plots tend to be simplistic and melodramatic. Mainly, opera seems to be much about stage production and, of course, quality of the singing and the orchestral music. Being the philistine who I am, I've enjoyed more the operas featuring topless female dancers and live elephants in my brief forays into the art.

I live in Conway but have no connection to this production. Today was the first I'd heard of it.

They never tell me nothin' up in here!!! Don't they recognize my genius?!

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Posted by Olphart on 06/05/2014 at 4:47 PM

I did enjoy the opera where Elmer was wearing the Viking helmet "Kill the wabit." Told you I am not cultured enough for opera. But that is my loss.

Glad UCA is involved in the project.

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Posted by Screen name taken on 06/05/2014 at 5:22 PM

"it makes my skin crawl" AND "where the worst of the shrieking occurs "

Maybe you fellers should start with some Puccini arias and work your way into opera.

Here's a little Maria Callas for you.

And this, also from Maria, is one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written. "One Fine Day"

Callas singing "O Mio babbino caro", "O my beloved father"

Give them a listen and then come back here and tell me your skin crawled at the shrieking.

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Posted by the outlier on 06/05/2014 at 5:33 PM

outlier, I suspected that you might weigh in on this. I didn't say that it was ALL "shrieking" and your examples are well-taken. I was thinking about the death scene in "La bohème" where Mimi takes what seems like an hour to die of tuberculosis. She calls forth every few minutes (when she should be very short of breath) lamenting her approaching death. You want to say "die already".

Anyway, I DID say that I was a philistine on the subject which is kinda like saying "you knew I was a snake when you picked me up". :)

Here's some opera from an unexpected source, more suitable for us of the chattering classes. From the Sci-Fi epic "The Fifth Element". Be sure to watch the whole thing. The opera aspect of it is intended to be serious. I think.

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Posted by Olphart on 06/05/2014 at 6:19 PM

You and Screen remind me of my son when he was little, Olphart. We used to share a box at the Hollywood Bowl with friends. They had a last minute emergency and couldn't attend one night. Not wanting to waste half of the box, we took our son who was 7 at the time. It was an eclectic program and the first performer was Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballé. She came out in a dress designed by Omar the tent maker and after listening about 30 seconds, my son said to me, "Is anybody else gonna do anything?" Then he promptly went to sleep.

Ethel Merman was on the program that night and I wasn't too keen on listening to her. I was never a fan of hers in any of her movies, and I had never seen her on stage. In person, she had some magical quality that projected out to the audience that film and television missed. Her performance was electrifying---and yes, very out of tune and loud and brassy.

Two years earlier we had taken our son to see "The King and I". It was Yul Brynner's last hurrah as he was being treated for lung cancer during the run of the show. My son was interested and trying to stay awake. After intermission, he crawled into my lap and said, "Wake me when he dies". Then he began to snore! I would readjust his head position and it would stop for a minute or two, then start up again.

My son enjoys things like this now. He's not a regular patron, but he and his girlfriend occasionally go to both the San Francisco Opera and the Ballet.

Now, if I could just get him to appreciate poetry.

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Posted by the outlier on 06/05/2014 at 7:13 PM

Hmmm! Wonder what Rapert thinks about this?

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Posted by golfpro on 06/05/2014 at 8:18 PM

Rapert has reportedly agreed to play the role of Orval Eugene Faubus in the UCA production.

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Posted by Olphart on 06/05/2014 at 8:43 PM

golfpro, is the raper capable of thought?
Olphart, you are a treasure.

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Posted by ozarkrazo on 06/05/2014 at 8:50 PM

ozarkrazo, apparently you haven't been keeping up with Bishop Rapert's new-found identity. Word is that he has auditioned for the role of Ernest Green.

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Posted by Doc on 06/05/2014 at 8:57 PM

the previous comment should have been directed to Olphart. I apologize for any damages caused by this error.

Posted by Doc on 06/05/2014 at 9:12 PM

Hee, hee, I like your idea better anyway, Doc. Rapert would be in danger of being type-cast forever in his new career as an opera singer if he played Faubus. Opera singer, candlestick maker or whatever...I hope he will be NEEDING a new career come November.

And BTW, welcome back, ozarkazo! Where ya been?

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Posted by Olphart on 06/05/2014 at 9:25 PM

Welcome back, ozarkazo.

Posted by couldn't be better on 06/06/2014 at 7:05 AM
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