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What's Cookin' with Morgan Freeman in Clarksdale, Mississippi? 

by Saahara Glaudé

Dunner Conducts “Central Park Five”

On May 4, 2020, Anthony Davis was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music for "The Central Park Five."


Photo credit: Long Beach Opera

At the time it was considered to be the crime of the century.

A group of five black and Latino teens, dubbed the “Central Park Five” by the media, were wrongfully accused and convicted of the brutal assault of a Manhattan jogger.

In the years following their exoneration through DNA evidence, the story has been revisited and retold throughout popular media. In June, a new retelling in the form of an opera premiered at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California with Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra Conductor Dr. Leslie B. Dunner at the podium.


The opera, Central Park Five, opened on June 15, 2019 and featured music by noted pianist and composer Anthony Davis with libretto by Richard Wesley. Dunner, who had teaching and conducting obligations at Interlochen Arts Academy until May 25, was intent on making the tight turnaround work.


“I left Interlochen after graduation on the 25th and began rehearsals the following day,” Dunner said. “I had two weeks of rehearsal, and after week one [Davis] gave me a new orchestra score. I had 600 new pages to learn.”


Though Dunner’s involvement with the show came fairly late in production, work on the opera began in 2014 when Kevin Maynor, Executive and Artistic Director of Trilogy: An Opera Company, approached Davis with an early draft of Wesley’s libretto for the show.


Trilogy, a Newark, New Jersey-based group, is one of the few organizations in the country committed to sharing the African-American experience through their artistic endeavours; with past productions including operatic works about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, orator and statesman Frederick Douglass, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and baritone Paul Robeson. Dr. Dunner is also their Resident Conductor.


Trilogy’s Five opened in 2016, and shares a number of similarities with the 2019 iteration. On May 31, 2019, Netflix released director Ava DuVenary’s four-part miniseries, When They See Us. Although the mediums differ, Dunner notes that both the drama and opera often paralleled. “There was a scene where language was exactly the same save for one odd detail,” Dunner said: the librettist swapped Attica for Rikers Island. However, Dunner adds that the media firestorm surrounding the Central Park Five meant that almost every aspect of the case was documented in the news. Because of that, little of Central Park Five is conjecture. The opera even went as far as adding projections of tabloids, newspapers, and footage from 1989 to the set to help ground the show in reality.


From Handel’s Julius Caesar to John Adams exploring Nixon in China, there is a centuries-old tradition of basing operas on real people, places, and events. However, in 2019, questions arose about the efficacy of telling the story of the Central Park Five as an opera.


"Anthony Davis said something very interesting,” Dunner said. “He had an interview where he was asked what he thought was relevant with opera. Because the interviewer said, ‘Opera was becoming a dead medium.’ And Anthony replied, ‘No. It's not a dead medium. It's a dead medium for your stories. It's not a dead medium for our stories because our stories have not been told in opera.’”


In Central Park Five, the story isn’t the only component that’s contemporary. The show incorporates elements of blues, free jazz, big band music, and hip-hop—genres pioneered by African-American artists.


When it was revealed that Central Park Five contained an homage to Duke Ellington, people began searching for it. The nod, Dunner revealed, was not from one of Ellington’s more popular works.


"There's a two note theme that comes in at the beginning of the show and again at the end, and it's to the word ‘Harlem,’” Dunner said. “Many people don’t know this, but Duke Ellington wrote two orchestral pieces in his lifetime: The River and Harlem. Now Harlem opens with a trumpet playing that theme. Davis lifted those two notes because that part of Central Park is in Harlem.”


For Dunner, Harlem wasn’t just a setting for the show, but a significant part of his own life. “I grew up in the area where all of this took place,” Dunner said. From where When They See Us opens, I lived eight blocks away. In part two, there is a scene just two blocks away from where I lived. I used to go to that part of Central Park as a kid. All of what went on during that time I have been through.”


At the time of their arrest in 1989, the five accused boys were 14 to 15 years old. Though the five male leads play both the young and adult versions of their characters, the emotional impact is not lost. Early on in rehearsals, Dunner had a moment at the podium that took him back to his own childhood.

“There’s a scene where the parents go to the precinct to meet their children,” Dunner said. “At one point, the mother of one of them comes to the door of the precinct, and I had this flashback. The actor’s hair was the same as my mom’s. She was wearing a glittery top. My mom would wear glittery tops. And when she came through that door, I had this moment of looking up at my mom, and it was surreal.”

“For a few days, every time she came through that door it took me out of the present and into the past. That was hard to reconcile.”

Though Central Park Five ends with the accused finding closure as adults, the show reminds us that the cultural, racial, and socio-economic issues that made the case front-page news 30 years ago still exist today.

“The cycle is still being perpetuated,” Dunner said. “What happened to them should not be happening anymore. Yet it is still happening. That is the relevance. That's why this was important.”

Whether it’s with the Long Beach Opera or Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, Dunner reiterates the importance of using the arts to tell these stories.

“We are just now coming to the foreground,” Dunner said. “So we are using this medium to tell our stories, and we are modifying the medium so that it's relevant to our population, and that's what's interesting, and that's what's exciting, and that's what I want to be a part of.”

Leslie Dunner

August 2020

University Heights Amphitheatre

Newark, NJ

Conducting Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final installment of the Company’s four-year journey through Richard Wagner’s mammoth Der Ring des Nibelungen in the Johnathan Dove performance version.

Leslie Dunner.png

Chevalier De Saint-Georges, Marlon Daniel and International Festival


Leslie Dunner: "Musical America" Interview about Interlochen


Encore Artists Mgmt. Artists Take World Stage As The World Games Orchestra 2022 In Historic Birmingham AL


Encore Artists Mgmt. (EAM) provides members comprise The World Games Orchestra for The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022)  (, taking place in Birmingham AL USA - July 7 - 17, 2022.  The World Games Orchestra will perform the opening and closing ceremonies at the Protective Stadium.


Atlanta-based Encore Artists Mgmt. CEO founder, Felix Farrar hand selected members of EAM and other select artists to comprise The World Games Orchestra under the direction of Artistic Director Dr. Henry Panion of Birmingham.


TWG 2022 will feature Alabamian Lionel Richie headlining the closing ceremony with the World Games Orchestra.


Farrar said he made his selection of participating artists, " because of their high level of musicianship, their individual seasoned history of working with reknowned global orchestras and my track record of having worked with each and every one of them. I've selected some of the finest classically trained and most accomplished musicians."


EAM Executive Producer _ Publicist Saahara Glaudé states, "This achievement comes to EAM on the heels of EAM artist Clayton Stephenson advancing to the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2022 and we are elated!"


EAM Artists performing on the TWG 2022 stage along with Associate Concertmaster violinist Felix Farrar are:



Felix Farrar

Karen Berz

Jason Economides

Martha Gardner

Patti Gouvas

Tramaine Jones

Angele Lawless

Anastasia Petrunina

Jason Pooler

Briana Robinson

Jessica Stinson



Lana Avis

Arthur Ross



Cremaine Booker

Jared Cooper

Noah Johnson



Debra Grove

John Grove



Sean Daniels

Dennis Petrunin



John Lawless



Stephen Wilson


EAM is proud of CEO and concertmaster Felix Farrar on this monumental contribution to The World Games 2022.

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