Little Rock Nine Set to Music

November 10, 2017

The civil rights movement is the subject of an opera being composed by Professor Tania Leon.

From Donizetti to John Adams, opera composers have turned to historical events as the subjects of their work. Contemporary operas have focused on terrorism in The Death of Klinghoffer and nuclear weapons in Dr. Atomic.

Now, add to that, civil rights. Professor Tania Leon (GC, Music) was commissioned by the University of Central Arkansas to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957 - one of the first tests of the federal government's enforcement of the Supreme Court school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The opera, Little Rock Nine, explores the stories of the nine students and their families whose mission to integrate Central High was a landmark in the history of civil rights.

Leon has said of the students that, "These nine lives could be ours."

She is collaborating on the work with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, the historical advisor for the opera, who remembers vividly the impact that the news of Little Rock had on him as a second grader, and librettist Thulani Davis, who lived through desegregation efforts as she grew up in the South. She has used some of the Little Rock students' own words to tell the story.

The New York Times has called the opera, which weaves the history with the personal stories of the students, a "musical tapestry of jazz, gospel, and snippets of ragtime." Excerpts of the work, still in progress, were previewed at the University of Central Arkansas on the September anniversary of Little Rock Central High's integration. An article on The Arkansas Times website described how the music evoked the emotions of the students during that turbulent time: "Leon's score, to my ears, seemed wildly difficult in this scene, but also wholly appropriate as a soundtrack to the reeling, apprehensive mind-sets of four students about to launch themselves into an impossibly treacherous social situation - and about to etch their own names into the history books."

Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, attended the preview and said she cried as she heard her own words put to music and considered the larger implications of what she and her fellow students accomplished. "It's not about my story," Brown Trickey said. "It's about producing change."