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Emmett Till, The Opera

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Emmett Till, The Opera
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Emmett Till - Composer Mary Watkins - Librettist Clare Coss The opera is inspired by the 1955 lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till, the failure for justice, and his mother's courageous decision to have an open casket. Her action sparked the Civil Rights Movement.



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 listen to two mp3 recorded scenes with libretto, please go to my website:  www.ClareCoss.com





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 project was then invited to be in development with The Harlem Lyric Theater & Opera Co., Gregory Hopkins, Artistic Director. The revised piano vocal score had a Sing-Through on March 6, 2018 with the same splendid cast. This Sing-Through was followed by in-house workshop sessions, funded by a seed grant from the Ford Foundation. The Third Sing-Through will take place Fall 2018 to hear the newly revised score.  Once the music is set, composer Mary Watkins will orchestrate the score for 18 instruments.  The final stage will be rehearsal and production in 2019, 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, two grants from the Eastman Fund,and one seed grant  from the Ford Foundation have supported Emmett Till through the development process.

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 as  "Half Yankee and Half Rebel."  Summers visiting my grandparents in New Orleans I was immersed in the painful and inexplicable Jim Crow reality of 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 disgraught to learn "Rebel" meant a member of the Confederacy,, the perpetrator of "For White Only/For Colored Only."  Mother tried to explain, the South never got over losing the war between the states and the end of slavery. 

In August 1955 I was starting my junior year at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge when Emmett Till was killed not far up river.  Haunted and marked by his horrific lynching and the acquittal of the murderers. I awoke one dawn in the early1990's with a "spiritual" directive to write the play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, with a white woman teacher as my entry.  Roanne Taylor represents white people who care but who remain silent.  Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley changed history when she made her courageous decision to have an open casket: "so the world could see what was done to her son.  So the world could help her tell the story."  .

Based on the play, the libretto underscores brave resistance by Mamie Till Mobley, Uncle Mose Wright, and sharecroppers who in the face of repeated death threats, risked their lives to testify.  The invented character,  teacher Roanne Taylor, represents silence, collusion, responsibility.  The libretto weaves the Emmett Till tragedy with his mother and uncle's  transformation from private to activist citizens.  This opera pays respect to the greatness of ordinary people who stood up, suffered and continued to struggle to bring about change in this country.

Composer Mary Watkins’ deeply moving score  illuminates the text: the tragic story, the sorrow, outrage, love, courage – her music is singable, touching, truthful.  I am grateful to be working with Mary Watkins on this extraordinary collaboration.