Critics want to shutter a new opera about Emmett Till. Here's what its creators say
Updated March 24, 2022 at 10:45 AM ET
At a recent rehearsal for Emmett Till, A New American Opera, composer Mary D. Watkins demonstrated her melodies with a pianist.
The 82-year-old said that working on this project has been cathartic, in a sense. She was born just two years before Till was, and can remember the day she learned the 14-year-old boy from Chicago was beaten beyond recognition, shot to death and dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
"My mother woke me up before school and I heard her walking through the house and wailing," Watkins said. "She said 'they killed him, and they killed him because he whistled at a white woman.' I thought about that probably, gee, everyday for a while."
She's now the composer for Emmett Till, A New American Opera, which premiered Wednesday night at in New York's Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College. Processing Till's death through music has made something positive out of the PTSD that came after his murder, Watkins said.
"I had a lot of anger about it," she said. "I think this is a good way for me to work, to do what I'm doing with this."
But concerns about the opera have, in many ways, eclipsed Watkins' sentiments. A Change.org petition with over 12,000 signatures — and counting — called for the opera to never see the light of day.
The main point of contention: the opera was conceived and its libretto was written by Clare Coss, a white woman. It's based on a play she penned, called Emmett, Down In My Heart, back in the early '90s.
Sitting in her New York City apartment, recently, the 86-year-old explained why writing this felt important.
"I just felt he had been lost to white history," Coss said. "I had this spiritual mandate because I don't know where else it came from."
On top of all the other criticism, the opera includes a fictitious white woman, a school teacher, who witnesses what happens and doesn't intervene. By the end, though, she's told her students about the atrocity. And while Coss says the opera is intended for everyone, she feels the inclusion of that sort of character is important for predominantly white opera-going audiences to see.
"A character for the white audience to emulate, admire, follow, cheer on," Coss says. "I like something somebody said: Black people don't like other people writing their stories. Black people walk a different road. You'll never understand it."
Interestingly enough, there's already an Emmett Till opera — one created by a Black opera composer and librettist, the late Michael Raphael, back in 2013.
Emmett Till: The Opera was performed as recently as November 2020, via Zoom, by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; that performance came in response to the murders of Black people caught on video at the hands of white police officers and vigilantes that year.
Coss said she was taken aback by the recent scrutiny her opera had received.
"In all these years, from when I started the play from the early '90s to last week, nobody ever said a word to me or nobody questioned me," she said.
When asked if she thinks the conversation about race has evolved in that span of time, Coss acknowledges that it has, citing the Black Lives Matter movement.
"It's a moment where I really understand the anger, the anger, you know, accumulation over hundreds of years," she said. "It's certainly understandable."
Garrett McQueen, a classical bassoonist and advocate for Black people in music, finds it curious that no one has challenged the work all these years.
"If this is the first time she's hearing critiques, I can't help but to believe that she isn't actually engaging a vast diversity of Black thought and Black individuals," he said.
McQueen also belongs to the Black Opera Alliance, which put out a statement on social media saying that, too often, Black people's trauma is rehashed on stage for white people's entertainment.
Producers of the opera have emphasized the two premiere performances won't be a full-on production with sets and costumes.
McQueen said that doesn't matter. He hasn't seen the opera, but said he hopes the Black people in the production get compensated and that the show doesn't go on.
Earlier this month, Till's family renewed their calls for charges against the white woman who accused him. And because of that, McQueen says an opera like this isn't going to fix things.
"The solution would be if each of those people who took the time to pay their money and go see that opera went to their racist uncle or children or neighbor and push them to do something; went into their workplace and said 'you need to be donating to anti-racist causes and organizations'," McQueen said. "And this opera at the end of the day isn't in itself a solution or progress."
We reached Emmett Till's family and they have no comment for this story.
Tickets range from $20 to $1,0000 — a portion is supposed to go to the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation — and organizers say they are selling out. They said they will be open to audience feedback this week.
In the leadup to the opera's release, both Mary D. Watkins and Clare Coss have put out statements defending the opera. While Coss emphasized that the silent white character "represents the context of White Supremacy in which the world of violence and terror was enabled," Watkins said that it's "disturbing" that critics have not seen or heard the work in question.
"Even though there are many artists of color involved in this project, the critics are assuming that we have had no impact on the final shape of the piece and that the playwright has somehow forced all of us to tell her story," she wrote in the statement. "It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the company members who are African-American."
In the days leading up to the premiere, the producers of the opera and the Black Opera Alliance had a brief email correspondence to express their points of view, and to clarify their thoughts. It seems both parties walked away unchanged.
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