Emmett Till Opera
Composer Mary Watkins Librettist Clare Coss
Emmett Till, the opera, was inspired by a tragic event in our nation’s history. In 1955, fourteen year-old African-American Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly “wolf-whistling” at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta. Kidnapped at midnight from his uncle’s home, tortured, murdered, thrown in the river, Emmett Till’s body caught on a log and was discovered. His Uncle Mose Wright broke the Delta code and became the first black man to identify white murderers in the armed Klan dominated courtroom. The killers were acquitted. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, transformed from private to activist citizen, insisted on an open casket to show the world what they had done to her son. She thereby imprinted the image of his destroyed face and head throughout the world. In the opera white teacher Roanne Taylor, the one invented character, is haunted by Emmett’s screams for mercy which drives her to confront her own silence and responsibility. Set mid August to mid September 1955, the action flows from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta, across and inside of time. The opera Emmett Till represents our nation’s on-going quest for justice with profound contemporary resonance.
To hear two mp3 recorded scenes with libretto, please go to my website: www.ClareCoss.com
Pianist Jennifer Peterson, Patrych Sound Studios
Act I, Scene 3
Mamie Till gives Emmett permission to go to Mississippi
Cast: Emmett Till – Robert Mack; Mamie Till – Nicole Mitchell;
Uncle Mose Wright – Kenneth Overton
Act I Scene 4
Mamie regrets her decision
Teacher Roanne Taylor questions God
Cast: Mamie Till – Nicole Mitchell; Roanne Taylor – Kathryn Guthrie
A first Sing-Through of the piano vocal score took place October 2016, beautifully cast by Robert Anthony Mack, General Director, Opera Noire of New York. The revised piano vocal score will have a Sing-Through on March 6, 2018 with the same splendid cast. This Sing-Through will be followed by in-house workshop sessions, Composer Mary Watkins then orchestrates the score for 18 instruments. The final stage will be rehearsal and production in 2019 - 2020, presented by The Harlem Lyric Theater & Opera Co.
Our fund raising drive continues through individual donations, foundations, funds, corporations, and crowdfunding.. At this point, individual donations and seed grants from the Eastman Fund and Ford Foundation have supported Emmett Till.
Composer Mary Watkins
I grew up in Colorado, a northern state, yet knew first-hand about discrimination. The difference between my southern sisters and brothers and me was that I was one Black among fifty or sixty Whites at any given time every day of the week except Sunday. I lived in a white neighborhood where some of my neighbors were blatant racists. As a child I heard derogatory remarks and jokes about “colored people/Negroes” and had no peers in a community where many people did not see or respect me or my people. Fortunately, much of my ability to cope came through my artistic abilities. I was able to be alone, and to find ways to deal with the anxiety of being “the only one.” I dealt with that pain through drawing, story-telling and music.
Setting music to the Libretto of Emmett Till has been an exciting challenge for me. I remember when Emmett Till was murdered, and the horror and sadness that affected me so deeply. Writing music for an opera telling the Emmett Till story isn’t something I ever thought I would do. However, I have been accorded the opportunity to fulfill this honor and I can only say I am deeply grateful.
I am an eclectic composer, and believe this opera provides me with the space to exercise a wide range of musical expression from which to draw in establishing empathy for the characters, emotional tone and events of Emmett Till’s lynching, which is definitely one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. For me, it is very important that I work on stories that reflect the real world and real people we recognize as ourselves on this life’s journey of fear, courage, losing and winning.
Librettist Clare Coss
I grew up in New Jersey and New Orleans. At a very young age my southern mother taught me to introduce myself: I am Half Yankee and Half Rebel. Summers visiting my grandparents in New Orleans I was immersed in the painful and inexplicable Jim Crow reality: separate water fountains, a separate entrance to the Bell corner movie theatre, “For Colored Only” wood signs separating seats in street cars and buses. Until U.S. history in fourth grade, I thought “rebel’ meant a rebellious spirit. I was shocked to learn it meant a member of the Confederacy. Mother explained, the South never got over losing the war between the states and the end of slavery.
After my father died, mother moved back to New Orleans. She let me finish my senior year at Friends Academy on Long Island, but insisted I attend college in Louisiana to be near her. I wanted to go to her alma mater, Sophie B. Newcomb, but Newcomb did not allow city residents to live in the dorm, so I traveled eighty-six miles up the Mississippi River to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I was a junior when Emmett Till was murdered in August 1955. It was there this horrific lynching, the acquittal of the murderers, and the tremendous courage of Mamie Till to have an open casket so the world could see what was done to her son lodged deep in my heart.
In the mid 1990’s I imagined the character of the white high school teacher Roanne Taylor to represent white people who care but who remain silent. She was my entry into the play, Emmett, Down in My Heart. The libretto was inspired by the play. Composer Mary Watkins’ deeply moving score illuminates the text: the tragic story, the sorrow, outrage, courage – her music is singable, touching, truthful. I am grateful to be working with Mary Watkins on this extraordinary project and collaboration.