UCSD professor Anthony Davis celebrates Pulitzer Prize for opera ‘The Central Park Five’

Anthony Davis has spent several years working on his new opera, "The Central Park Five," which addresses race and judicial inequities through the prism of real-life. The 1989 event that inspired his 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera made headlines again last year and led to renewed the public debate.
Anthony Davis spent several years working on his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 opera, “The Central Park Five.” It addresses race and judicial inequities through the prism of a real-life 1989 event.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The work, which debuted in 2019 at Long Beach Opera, features Donald Trump (or rather an opera singer portraying Trump, circa 1989).


Anthony Davis had an excellent reason for missing part of a Zoom meeting with the other faculty members of UC San Diego’s music department.

The veteran composer received a mid-meeting call on his home phone May 4 informing him that he had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music. The win came for Davis’ “The Central Park Five,” which debuted in June at Long Beach Opera.

It chronicles the racially and politically charged New York trial and conviction of one Latino teenager and four black teens — who all were later exonerated and freed — in the 1989 rape of a young white female investment banker in Central Park. Now-President Donald Trump, then a New York real estate magnate, took out full-page newspaper ads at the time that read in part: “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!” The Trump character plays a key role in Davis’ opera.

“I’m excited, thrilled and honored that this work has been recognized this way,” Davis said from the University City home he shares with his opera singer wife, Cynthia, and their son, Jonah, a professional baseball player.

Noted composer Anthony Davis blurs the lines between jazz, opera, world music, the avant-garde and other styles with unique skill and daring.

Davis is only the third UC San Diego faculty member to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, according to a campus spokesman. Fellow composer Roger Reynolds won the 1989 Pulitzer for music, while Rae Armantrout won the 2010 prize for poetry.

“All I thought about was making this the best piece I could,” Davis said.

“And I wanted to do justice to the [real] Central Park Five and to represent and tell their story, so it was important for me to have the music represent their story. I met them in Los Angeles last June, just before the opening at Long Beach Opera, at an ACLU luncheon that they attended, along with the cast members from the opera and from the cast of [Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix TV series] ‘When They See Us.’”

In announcing the award for “The Central Park Five,” the Pulitzer committee hailed it 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.”

Spotlighting injustice and focusing on historical figures and events has been a driving force for Davis since 1986, when the New York City Opera debuted his first major work, “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.”

The subjects of his subsequent operas have included the kidnapping and radicalization of heiress Patty Hearst (1992’s “Tania”), a slave rebellion (1997’s “Amistad”) and social injustices against Native Americans (2007’s “Wakonda’s Dream”).

The libretto for “The Central Park Five” was written by Richard Wesley, a New York University associate professor of dramatic writing.

“The Pulitzer win is really a tribute to Long Beach Opera, which was so incredibly supportive of this piece, and the singers who brought so much to their roles” said Davis, 69, who has taught at UCSD since 1998.

“And it’s also very exciting for me that you can create political work that has an impact and speak to issues in our society. I’ve done my career creating political works, and I never thought I would ever get a Pulitzer. I hope it will encourage other people to speak their minds and be passionate about what they believe and to express it in their art.”

Davis, who was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt for the May 4 Zoom meeting, laughed.

“I definitely never thought I’d win a Pulitzer Prize for an opera that features Donald Trump sitting on a toilet while speaking on the phone,” he said.

“I also hope that this [Pulitzer] will allow the piece to be presented in other places in America and, perhaps, in other countries.”

A skilled pianist, Davis has more than 15 non-opera solo albums to his credit. He was a 20-year-old student at Yale University in 1971 when he turned down an offer to join the Grateful Dead.

Davis went on to establish himself as a cutting-edge jazz composer and band leader before starting to focus on opera in the 1980s.

Drawing from jazz, contemporary classical, various World Music styles and more — including R&B and hip-hop in “The Central Park Five” — Davis creates an aural universe that has earned him praise from others, including percussion professor Steven Schick.

“Anthony is a master at listening to the world — the enormous variety of styles, cultures and musical impulses of many times and places — and distilling from them cogent, pointed works of art that illuminate the most important qualities of our time and place,” Schick said.

Davis has had commissions from Opera Omaha, Long Beach Opera and other companies that have staged productions of his work.

Davis is now composing new operas about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma and the fatal 2015 shootings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

He also is working on a musical adaptation of the children’s book “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” which is set at the U.S.-Mexico border and addresses current immigration issues. ◆