Emmett Till, The Opera

We invite you to help fund the concert production of a powerful and beautiful new opera, Emmett Till, to premiere at John Jay College Gerald W Lynch Theater, March23-24, 2022. Presenters are librettist Clare Coss and composer Mary Watkins, in association with John Jay College, Opera Noire International,, and The Harlem Chamber Players. Robert Mack, general director of Opera Noire will cast the production; Liz Player, founder and director of The Harlem Chamber Players, will provide the orchestra. Tania Leon will conduct; Damien Sneed will serve as Choral Master. This opera is a telling of the 1955 brutal torture and lynching of 14 year old Chicago youth Emmett Till for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta. The fake trial failed to indict the murderers. His mother Mamie Till Mobley made the courageous decision to have an open casket so the world could know and help tell the story in the struggle for justice. Her action helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement.

Emmett Till, the Opera  Mary Watkins, Composer  Clare Coss, Librettist 

For more information: Clare Coss, [email protected]                                   

In 1955, fourteen year old African-American Emmett Till from Chicago was brutally lynched in the Mississippi Delta for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. The murderers were acquitted. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, changed history when she demanded an open casket, and called upon the world to help her struggle against racial violence and for a just future.

Emmett Till, the opera, is based on Coss' prize-winning play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, recipient of a Ford Foundation grant.

Mary Watkins' bold prismatic score blazes with compelling energy, heals with outrage and melodies of love and compassion. Woven through are harmonies that evoke violence, compassion, faith, and the complexities of human experience.

The cast features five African-American soloists and three white soloists, a Black Chorus, a White Chorus. One invented character, Roanne Taylor, a school teacher, represents white silence, collusion, responsibility. Robert Anthony Mack, General Manager, Opera Noire, splendidly cast the workshops.

This project expands opportunities for African-American singers and composers, and for music lovers to confront the on-going issues of our racial divides. This work will build community and audiences for opera in high schools, colleges, community centers, and regional opera companies. 

We are grateful to over a hundred donors who have contributed since our start in 2013. Greatly appreciated are grants from the Ford Foundation, MAP, LMCC, Eva and Lucius Eastman Fund, Sandra Turner and Philippa Weismann Family Fund. Mary Watkins has orchestrated the score for 23 instruments.  Watkins and Coss seek to pay respect to the greatness of ordinary people who stood up, suffered, and continued to struggle to bring about change in this country. Themes of murder, hate, and silence, are met with courage, love, and defiance. Watkins and Coss consider Emmett Till not only a work of art but an act of resistance

For two videos and two mp3 recorded scenes with libretto, please go to: www.ClareCoss.com                                                                                                                                              

Composer Mary Watkins

I grew up in Colorado 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 pursuits. 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 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, one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.

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 disturbing and painful 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 distraught 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 failure of justice, I awoke one dawn in the winter of 1993 with a "spiritual" directive to write the play, Emmett, Down in My Heart. I invented one character, a white woman teacher, Roanne Taylor, my entry into the story. Roanne Taylor represents white people who care but who remain silent.  Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till, broke the silence and 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."  

I am grateful to be working with Mary Watkins on this extraordinary collaboration.