[ Students & Alumni ]

YSM composer presents “Stinney: An American Execution” in New York

YSM composition student Frances Pollock '19MM discusses her opera and the role of the artist in society
January 10, 2019

Baltimore premiere of Stinney: An American Execution. Photo by Will Kirk, Homewood Photography

While pursuing degrees and performing at the Yale School of Music, students also actively engage in collaborations outside of Yale, and work to affect change in their communities and beyond. YSM composer Frances Pollock ’19MM has worked in conjunction with the Prototype Festival, French Institute Alliance Française, and Harlem Stage to present the opera Stinney: An American Execution, for which she wrote the score and co-wrote the libretto. Stinney was originally premiered in Baltimore in 2015, where Pollock earned a master’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory. Speaking about the premiere, Pollock said, “Part of our audience came to the show because of their profound dedication to new music. The other part came out of a profound dedication to the fight for human rights. I caught my first glimpse of how art can be a powerful unifier in a moment when there doesn’t seem to be a way to move forward.” Hailed by the Baltimore Sun as a “bold, bracing opera that pulls no punches and never flinches,” Stinney will be performed this weekend at Flourence Gould Hall in New York City.

Stinney tells the story of George Junius Stinney Jr., who was executed at age 14 for a crime he didn’t commit. According to the Prototype Festival website, “Having been wrongly accused and convicted of the rape and murder of two white girls in Alcolu, SC, in 1944, George became the youngest person legally executed in 20th-century America. Stinney tells the story of George, his family, his community, and the jury of ten white men that sent an innocent black boy to the electric chair. A new opera with roots in both gospel and electronic techniques, Stinney: An American Execution spotlights the anger and agony of the entire populous of Alcolu, connecting the dots to our own socio-political climate in 2019 and the pervasive ‘fear of the other.’”

We recently spoke with Pollock and the production’s music director, Alex Blake, about the opera and its importance in today’s world.

Q. What do you think is the role of an artist in tackling issues of racism and oppression? 

Blake: I feel like art should reflect the times that we are in and should reflect the struggles of a people. Art allows artists to reach people, a way to present difficult topics, and a way for audiences to enter into a conversation without feeling defensive or feeling like they have to respond to a topic in the moment. We tell stories and we open up dialogue in an emotional sense that push beyond the academic or intellectual spaces.

Pollock: The thing that I’m most interested in right now is challenging the systems in which art is created. In telling charged stories, we as artists must be aware of our limited perspective and make sure we are working with collaborators who will challenge that perspective in the creative process. For this project, it was crucial to decentralize the role of the composer and focus on establishing a team that is invested in crafting the story. For me personally, being in touch with the Stinney family and including them at every step was the only way to make sure that we were telling the story in a way that truly listened.

We are also trying out a new model for royalties on this opera. As the opera goes on, most of the royalties will go directly to the Stinney family. The cast and creative team will also continue to receive collaborative royalties as the show progresses. This model ensures that the team is recognized for role in the creative process even as the show goes forward.

Q. Why is this opera important? Do you think it is particularly important now, in our current social and political climate? 

Blake: This opera is extremely important. We have seen more and more cases of the struggles and interactions between police and people of color, including Black children. From a socio-political sense this piece definitely brings up questions that we need to respond to as a population in these times right now.

Musically, this opera is important because it involves a story of a community that rarely feels represented in classical music and more specifically in opera. To hear the story of someone in the community and to see members of that community represented on stage is an experience that has not been offered to people of color, and that representation is essential when we talk about the relevance of opera to an American populous.

The status quo for opera is dominated by heteronormative caucasian stories told from a singular perspective. This story about this African American boy and the American systems that have been detrimental to the success and progression of marginalized populations are beautifully represented in Stinney.

Pollock: I totally agree with Alex. It’s also important to challenge the spaces of western art music—spaces that are still predominantly white and predominantly wealthy. There is nothing wrong with canonic repertoire itself nor the audiences that attend these performances, but often these spaces pride themselves on being elite. Elitism often leads to exclusion, and the history of elitism in opera manifests in whole communities being excluded from classical music spaces.

Q. What led you to begin this project? 

Blake: Frances Pollock called me and told me about this opportunity to perform Stinney in New York. I had already read about the first run-through and was both elated and horrified to be asked to be a part of it—you see, this is my first experience conducing an opera, and I remember asking if she was sure that I would be a good fit. I’m very honored and excited to be a part of telling this story.

Pollock: I have been interested in the conversation that surrounds race relations in the South since I was in high school. In college, I spent a little while working with the Innocence Project in North Carolina and became profoundly aware of systemic racism in the prison system. When I moved to Baltimore and began teaching in the public schools, I was faced with the reality that many of my students lived with daily—that low-income communities of color were chronically under-supported and over policed, which perpetuated the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline. At the same time, I was confronted with the status quo of classical music training, training that felt wholly unaware of the social injustices that were taking place right outside the ivory walls of the conservatory. (Co-librettist) Tia [Price] and I started writing Stinney to start having a conversation with our colleagues.

Stinney: An American Execution will be performed on January 12, at 5 p.m., and January 13, at 3 p.m, with tickets starting at $30. On January 10, at 7:30 p.m., co-presenter Harlem Stage will host a moderated panel discussion, Democratic Ideals and Racism: An Examination of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, on the creative responses of artists as they witness, experience, and analyze the collective trauma of being Black in America. The discussion will feature members of the creative team of Stinney, and tickets start at $5.

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