For hundreds of years, opera has enthralled, engaged, and excited audiences in ways that few other art forms can, and with that excitement has come a reasonable amount of scandal and drama. From the controversial, politically charged premiere of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro to the news headlines that immortalized a “little black dress” that singer Deborah Voigt couldn’t quite wear, there has always (and may always be) something to talk about when elaborate costumes and grand theaters meet orchestral music and vocal gymnastics.
On March 23 and 24, “Emmett Till: A New American Opera” hit the stage of New York’s John Jay College, and even before its premiere, it proved to be yet another example of the opera tradition’s continued relationship with scandal and critical response.
The story of Emmett Till is one that still rings loudly in the ears of many Black Americans, and has even been revisited in recent years as America continues to reckon with race and racism. Till, a 14-year-old Black youth from Chicago, was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955 when, according to accounts, he whistled at a white woman at a local grocery store. A few nights later, two of the woman’s relatives abducted Till from his uncle’s home, brutally beat him, shot him in the head, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Once his body was recovered and returned to Chicago, Till’s mother, Mamie Till, held a public, open-casket funeral for her son, making him an instant and lasting icon in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Many consider an operatic retelling of this gruesome American tale something unnecessary and even tokenizing, but the two women at the head of the Emmett Till-inspired work believe otherwise.
The music of “Emmett Till: A New American Opera” was written by Mary D. Watkins – a Black woman and Howard University educated composer who has three operas to her credit, in addition to several works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and chorus. The libretto was created by playwright and activist Clare Coss, who is white. While much of the opera’s critical reception has centered around Coss’ race, the major critiques have centered around the opera’s fictional, white character who witnesses the murder and says nothing.
According to Coss, this character was meant to inspire a predominantly white opera audience: “a character for the white audience to emulate, admire, follow, cheer on,” in her words. Watkins, in statements made to NPR and others, affirms the creation of this character, and has stood by Coss through the media firestorm.
Once news of the opera hit social media, a petition was created to cancel the opera’s premiere which, as of March 23rd, had over 13,000 signatures. Among the petition’s signatories is Mya Bishop, who commented “…the John Jay BSU (Black Student Union) was not informed about this play. We found out through TikTok. Most people at John Jay do not know this play is happening. I feel like this is deliberate…” Other signatories included Saelem Cullinane, who in the comment section of the petition asked:
“Why are you letting a white woman tell the story of a Black child who was brutally murdered over a false accusation?”.
It wasn’t just individuals who showed disapproval of the work, but organizations, including the Black Opera Alliance. In a statement made on the Black Opera Alliance’s Facebook page, the organization offered the following:
“The Black Opera Alliance empathizes with and supports the Black artists and producers involved in the upcoming production of “Emmett Till, The Opera,” but we denounce the telling of this historic story by a white woman and from a white vantage point. It is time for Black creators to be given opportunities to expand the operatic canon with authentic storytelling from our own perspectives.
Carolyn Bryant (the white woman who falsely accused Emmett Till) still walks free, and now she can walk into a theater and see the story of the lie she got away with–through the eyes of a fictional, fellow white woman.
While we feel for the Black people involved in this opera, we do not support the rehashing of Black trauma for white entertainment. By centering a white character in a story of Black trauma, the librettist, Clare Coss, takes an experience she has no claim to and centers whiteness. White saviorism is not allyship, it is violence, and we condemn it. It is time for Black joy in opera, Black love in opera, Black triumph in opera, from Black perspectives, and we will continue to work for that progress.”
The producers of “Emmett Till” and the Black Opera Alliance exchanged correspondence regarding this premiere, with both parties remaining unmoved in their stances.
As a member of the Black Opera Alliance’s Leadership Council, I stand behind and affirm the statements made by the organization, and share more of my thoughts in an interview published by NPR . But as the story surrounding “Emmett Till: A New American Opera” developed toward the March 23rd premiere, my principal criticism has shifted toward the very thing that Clare Coss celebrates: the centering of a white audience.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion, as engaged by arts institutions across the country, have centered performers, but what about audience members? With a few exceptions (including the diverse audience turnout for the Metropolitan Opera’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones”), opera audiences remain predominantly white.
The creation of a fictional, white character in “Emmett Till” for the sake of affirming the feelings of these predominantly white audiences is not only a perpetuation of a status quo that countless arts administrators, advocates, and activists work to dismantle, but a celebration of it.
Additionally, the commodification of the tragic story of Emmett Till, an innocent victim of America’s racism, cannot be contextualized as activism. This, coupled with the continued centering of opera’s traditional European “canon” across the industry is a testament to how far the industry hasn’t come. Even with the music of Mary D. Watkins and the involvement of several other Black artists considered, “Emmett Till: A New American Opera” is yet another opera for white people.
As Martin Luther King Jr. famously asked in the title of his final book before his own assassination, “Where do we go from here?”. Will this opera have the impact that Watkins and Coss hoped for, or will this prove to fortify opera’s white-centered culture? I believe that the latter will be the case, but time will tell. —