Long Beach Opera’s production of The Central Park Five. Photo credit: Long Beach Opera

CCM alumnus Leslie B. Dunner conducts Pulitzer Prize-winning opera ‘The Central Park Five’

Long Beach Opera’s production of The Central Park Five. Photo credit: Long Beach Opera

Anthony Davis’ opera won the prestigious prize after Dunner led the world premiere in June 2019

CCM graduate Leslie B. Dunner (DMA Orchestral Conducting, ’82) conducted the premiere of Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five last June with California’s Long Beach Opera. In May, the opera won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Composed by Davis with a libretto by Richard Wesley, the opera was described by the jury of the prestigious award as, “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”

The Central Park Five’s musical style combines elements of jazz, hip-hop, blues and other historically African-American genres. The opera centers on the five African American and Latino teenagers who were unjustly convicted of a Central Park assault in the 1980s, but were exonerated through DNA evidence 13 years later.

CCM audiences may remember Dunner from his recent appearance on campus. In October 2019, Dunner returned to CCM to conduct the Philharmonia in its “CSI Halloween: Post-Mortem” performance. While on campus, Dunner connected with CCM conducting students over dinner and worked with them in studio class as well as in rehearsals to prepare for the performance.

An award-winning conductor with a glowing international reputation, Dunner is the Music Director of the South Shore Opera Company in Chicago and serves as the conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, the World Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Interlochen Arts Camp.

Dunner began rehearsals for The Central Park Five shortly after his teaching and conducting work at the Interlochen Arts Academy ended for the 2018-19 school year. In an interview for Interlochen’s website, Dunner commented on the importance of telling the stories and struggles of black Americans through the lens of opera.

“Anthony Davis said something very interesting,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “He had an interview where he was asked what he thought was relevant with opera. Because the interviewer said, ‘Opera was becoming a dead medium.’ And Anthony replied, ‘No. It’s not a dead medium. It’s a dead medium for your stories. It’s not a dead medium for our stories because our stories have not been told in opera.’”

For Dunner, the story of the Central Park Five is very personal. “I grew up in the area where all of this took place,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “I lived eight blocks away. I used to go to that part of Central Park as a kid. All of what went on during that time I have been through.”

From the Central Park Five to today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, stories of cultural, racial and socio-economic injustices regularly make headlines across the country. “The cycle is still being perpetuated,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “What happened to them should not be happening anymore. Yet it is still happening. That is the relevance. That’s why this was important.”

One month after Dunner led the world premiere of The Central Park Five at Long Beach Opera, another opera focused on wrongful convictions premiered at Cincinnati Opera. The stories of six people who were wrongfully imprisoned and then freed were told in Blind Injustice, a collaboration with CCM, UC’s Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) and the Young Professionals Choral Collective. Based on casework by the OIP and the book “Blind Injustice” by UC law professor and OIP Director Mark Godsey, the highly acclaimed opera was directed by CCM Professor of Opera Robin Guarino and featured several current and former CCM students in the cast.

Efforts to share diverse stories through the performing arts is not limited to tales of wrongful convictions and struggle. In February, Dunner conducted the Toledo Symphony in a program that highlighted classical musicians of color. Selections included excerpts from Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, Duke Ellington’s The River Suite, André Previn’s Honey and Rue and William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, among other pieces. As Music Director and Interim Artistic Director of Chicago’s South Shore Opera, Dunner furthers the company’s mission to provide greater opportunities for professional artists of color, especially local black artists, in performances of classic and contemporary operas.

“We are just now coming to the foreground,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “So we are using this medium to tell our stories, and we are modifying the medium so that it’s relevant to our population, and that’s what’s interesting, and that’s what’s exciting, and that’s what I want to be a part of.”

Read Dunner’s full interview on Interlochen’s website.

Learn more about Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, The Central Park Five.

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