World premiere of EMMETT TILL, a new American opera at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater scheduled for March 23

Emmett Till, A New American Opera – a powerful concert crafted by playwright and librettist Clare Coss and composer Mary D. Watkins and in association with John Jay College, Opera Noire International, The Harlem Chamber Players and Harlem Arts Alliance will have its world premiere on March 23 with an encore on March 24 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

Both performances begin at 7 p.m. Directed by 2021 Pulitzer Prize winner Tania León, the production centers on the brutal murder of Emmett Till and explores themes of social justice, flaws in the justice system, white silence and covenant, racial inequality and the complexities of the human experience.

Based on Coss Emmett’s award-winning play Down in My Heart (2013), Emmett Till, A New American Opera re-imagines the events surrounding the tragic murder of Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was savagely lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Following his mother’s courageous decision to have an open casket for the world to see what was done to her son, the lynching of Emmett Till became a catalyst for the civil rights movement and constitutes a turning point in the racial struggle. account of this country. In the opera, the story is approached through the lens of Roanne Taylor, a young white woman who teaches high school science in Drew, Mississippi. Roanne is against Jim Crow laws, segregation and the racial inequality she sees around her but remains silent. She is the only fictional character in the opera and represents what Martin Luther King Jr. called the ultimate tragedy – “the silence of good people”.

With both a black and a white choir, Emmett Till weaves Till’s horrific murder with Mamie Till-Mobley’s transformation from private citizen to activist, Uncle Mose Wright’s bold decision to break the Delta Code and to testify at trial, and Roanne Taylor’s journey to a sense of responsibility. From the phenomenal courage of his mother Mamie Till-Mobley to the perils of white silence to the brutal failure of the justice system, Watkins and Coss have created a deeply moving new opera that forces audiences to examine the ugliness of systemic racism and the consequences silence. in the face of violence and injustice.

Emmett Till’s story holds personal significance for Coss who was attending Louisiana State University at the time and was haunted by his murder. Decades later, she was forced to find a way to honor her mother’s ongoing fight to “keep telling the Emmett story”:

“Emmett Till was murdered not far uphill from where I was in first grade at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. No one in my predominantly white world would talk about what happened, a child brutally tortured and lynched – the collapse of justice White supremacy and Jim Crow ruled Over the years the pain of Emmett’s murder continued to torment my heart In 1992 I woke up one morning with the spiritual mandate to write a play about Emmett Till,” Coss said. “I approached writing about him out of my belief that this tragedy is shared, the same way the tragic history of this country is shared. White people as perpetrators and witnesses of white supremacy have a vested interest in this story. I want people to understand that Not so long ago. Emmett Till is in our lifetime. He is in MY life. I want people to understand the serious parallels between the world of he over 60 years ago and the world today – from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to Daunte Wright. It’s still happening and we need to continue to shed light on those stories. It reminds me of the words of Grandma Till-Mobley “The world must see what has been done to my son. The world has to help me tell the story.” And we will.”

Subsequently, after the successful debut of the play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, in 2013, Coss was encouraged by fellow musicians Lucille Field and Patsy Rogers to translate the play into a libretto. They introduced Coss and Watkins and together the two began their creative journey, followed by five years of development, workshops and three songs – to bring Emmett Till, A New American Opera to life. For Watkins, this project is also intensely personal and a labor of love:

“Putting music to Clare’s Emmett Till libretto was an exciting challenge for me. I remember when Emmett Till was murdered, and the horror and sadness that touched me deeply. I grew up in Colorado, but I knew discrimination first hand. The difference between my sisters and brothers in the south and me was that I was one black person among fifty or sixty white people at any time every day of the week except on Sundays. I lived in a white neighborhood where some of my neighbors were blatant racists…and I dealt with that pain through drawing, storytelling, and music,” Watkins said. “I never expected to write an opera about the lynching of Emmett Till, but I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to examine one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. I am an eclectic composer, and this opera gave me the space to exercise a wide range of musical expression in order to establish empathy for the characters and the complex emotional texture of the time.”

After each performance, WQXR host Terrance McKnight will host a discussion with the artists.

Clare Coss is a playwright, librettist and activist. His play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, inspired his libretto, Emmett Till, a new opera created in collaboration with composer Mary D Watkins. Her play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, translated into German by the Afro-German theater company Label Noir, Tief in meinem Herzen is now a theatrical film premiering in Berlin in 2022. She is a member of the League of Professional Women in Theatre, PEN, The Dramatists Guild, and Columbia University’s Women and Society Seminar. For eight years, she was a board member of the Thanks to Grandma Winifred Foundation and enjoyed her ten-year tenure as poetry editor for Affilia, a journal about women and work. social. For forty years, Clare Coss maintained her dual career as a psychotherapist and writer. Her productions include Emmett, Down in My Heart, Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington, and Lillian Wald: At Home on Henry Street. She is a recipient of a NYSCA Artist Grant for the premiere of Emmett Till.

Mary D. Watkins is a prolific composer, arranger, producer, pianist and entertainer. She has won critical acclaim and awards for her many symphonic works, film scores, songs and pieces for classical and jazz instrumentalists. Soul of Remembrance is one of his most popular orchestral works. It was recorded by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble of Chicago (Albany Records 2009) and has recently been performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony and many other orchestras. She has also composed three long operas on historical themes: Queen Clara (about Clara Barton, 2005); Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story (2009); and Emmet Till, the Opera (2019). She recently completed a segment of an opera about mass incarceration for White Snake Projects, which premiered online in May 2021. Mary D Watkins received a 2022 Composers Now Visionary Award.

Tania León (born in Havana, Cuba) is highly regarded as a composer, conductor, educator and advisor to arts organizations. Her orchestral work Stride, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her recent commissions include works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, NDR Symphony Orchestra, Grossman Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, and pianist Ursula Oppens with the Cassatt String Quartet. Guest conductor appearances include the Orchester Philharmonique de Marseille, Gewandhausorchester, Orquesta Sinfonica de Guanajuato and Orquesta Sinfónica de Cuba.

A founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, León instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series, co-founded the American Composers Orchestra’s Sonidos de las Américas festivals, and is the founder/artistic director of Composers Now, a presenting, commissioning organization and defense of living composers.

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