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Ryan Ebright
Ryan Ebright ’14 (Photo courtesy of RE)

by Ryan Ebright, Ph.D. ’14

American opera underwent tremendous changes in the 1980s. Spurred on the one hand by an influx of money from the National Endowment for the Arts and various philanthropic foundations, and on the other by a rekindled interest among musicians and artists in a genre that some had thought moribund, opera companies throughout the United States began commissioning and producing new operas. This revitalization has continued into the present. In the past five years, more than 200 new operas have premiered, whereas the first half-decade of the 1980s saw fewer than 50 premieres. As a result of this expansion, American opera has transformed in myriad ways. This transformation is the focus of my research.

One of the most striking developments in recent years has been the growing number of operas that foreground Black experiences, voices, and bodies. Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Terence Blanchard’s Champion (about the gay boxer Emile Griffith), and Tania León’s work-in-progress Little Rock Nine are just a few of the most prominent examples. Although the tradition of Black opera in the U.S. stretches back at least to the early twentieth century, a more recent precedent can be found in Anthony Davis’s landmark opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which received its official premiere at the New York City Opera in 1986. I have been studying X over the past couple of years, and when Davis received the Pulitzer Prize in Music earlier this year for his latest opera, The Central Park Five, I saw an opportunity to reflect on the racial topography of American opera, then and now, by telling the story of how X came to Lincoln Center:

Ryan Ebright earned his Ph.D. in musicology from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014 and serves as an assistant professor of musicology at Bowling Green State University.

Further reading and viewing:

More on Anthony Davis from

Listen to music by Anthony Davis on Spotify.

Opera America. [OperaAmerica]. Salon Series: An Evening with Anthony Davis. [Video]. YouTube.

Long Beach Opera, The Central Park Five trailer (2019)

Tsiolcas, Anastasia. Composer Anthony Davis Wins Pulitzer Prize for His Opera ‘The Central Park Five’. May 4, 2020.

Malcolm X Memorial Foundation

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