[Anthony Davis is composer of Amistad; Thulani Davis is librettist]
New York Times: At Spoleto Festival, Revisiting a Fateful Chapter in Slavery
By Daniel J. Wakin
Published: May 24, 2008
“CHARLESTON, S.C. — Not so often do new American operas find life after birth. But Anthony Davis’s 'Amistad,' a historically inspired exploration of slavery and freedom, has come back to the stage 11 years after its debut at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and in a deeply resonant setting.
“It is the central work at this summer’s Spoleto Festival U.S.A., whose host is Charleston, a city fully freighted with slavery’s legacy. The relevance has not been lost on African-Americans involved: the composer, the librettist, performers and audience members. 'This is one of the main ports of slavery,' said Gregg Baker, who sings the part of Cinque, leader of the band of captive Africans who are the subject of the story. 'To do it down here was a bit, I guess, ironic. Slavery basically built this town.'
“Mr. Baker spoke at an outdoor reception after the opening-night performance of “Amistad” on Thursday at the newly restored Memminger Auditorium, this city’s latest pride and joy and a major performance space of the festival.”
“The opera is based on historical events involving a Spanish slave ship, La Amistad, in 1839-41. A group of West Africans — Mende and Temne people from what is now Sierra Leone — were seized and taken to Cuba for sale as slaves. As the ship moved on to another Caribbean island, they rose up, killed most of the crew and sought to return home, but the ship’s navigator tricked them into sailing toward the United States.
“They were captured on Long Island and put on trial in Connecticut, which was deemed more sympathetic to slavery. Abolitionists took up their cause. John Quincy Adams, a former president, defended them, and the Supreme Court eventually ruled that the Africans should be considered free people.” “Nigel Redden, the festival’s director, said he had long wanted to bring 'Amistad' to Spoleto U.S.A. but only on the condition that Mr. Davis tighten the work. 'I felt this was an opera that needed to be redone,' Mr. Redden said. 'It was too massive in Chicago.'
“Mr. Davis and the librettist, his cousin the writer Thulani Davis, set to work. Several scenes were cut. The characters of President Martin Van Buren, a Spanish minister and a United States senator were discarded. Lines were eliminated. The orchestra was reduced to 45 from 65. Textures were thinned. “Mr. Davis acknowledged that the opera had needed surgery. 'It just involved too many people,' he said.” Full Post
Opera Amistad at Spoleto U.S.A.
African American Composer
African American Librettist
Charleston, South Carolina