Anthony Davis (composer)

Last updated

Anthony Davis (born February 20, 1951) is an American pianist and composer. He incorporates several styles including jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, gospel, non-Western, African, European classical, Indonesian gamelan, and experimental music. [1] He has played with several groups and is also professor of music at University of California, San Diego.


Davis is perhaps best known for his operas; he has been called "the dean of African-American opera composers." [2] His better known compositions include X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X , which was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1986; Amistad, which premiered with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997; and Wakonda's Dream , which premiered at Opera Omaha in 2007. His opera The Central Park Five premiered on June 15, 2019 at the Long Beach Opera Company in California. It won him a Pulitzer Prize for Music on May 4, 2020. [3] [4]


Davis was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1951. He has a 1975 degree from Yale University, and has taught at Yale and Harvard University. [5]

Davis is a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego, having joined the department in 1996. [6] He has received acclaim as a free-jazz pianist, a co-leader or sideman with various ensembles. Such ensembles include those that featured Smith as bandleader from 1974 to 1977. He has played with Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith. In 1981, Davis formed an octet called Episteme. He also wrote the incidental music for the Broadway version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America . [5]

Many of his operas have explored people and events from African-American history. In 1997 his opera Amistad, with a libretto by his cousin Thulani Davis, premiered at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Its ambition was recognized but the production received mixed reviews. It was accepted for a production in 2008 at Spoleto Festival USA. It underwent a major revision and the production was highly praised. Opera Today said that the revised Amistad was "much leaner, more focused and dramatically far more effective than the original. And in so doing they [the Davises] created not only a masterpiece of American opera, but further a work that — against a contemporary horizon darkened by undercurrents of racism — resonates today far beyond Memminger and Spoleto USA." [7]

Davis has also explored other ethnic history. His opera Wakonda's Dream (2007), with a libretto by Yusef Komunyakaa, is a tale of a contemporary Native American Ponca family in Nebraska and the history that affects them.

His opera Lilith (libretto by Allan Havis) had its world premiere at the Conrad Prebys Music Center at UCSD on December 4, 2009. The story is about the demon figure of Jewish mythology who was sometimes said to be biblical Adam's first wife. It is set in a modern era.

He began working on the music for the opera The Central Park Five in 2014. An early version, titled Five, was performed in Newark, New Jersey in 2016 by the Trilogy Company. [2] The librettist for both the early and final versions was playwright Richard Wesley. The Central Park Five premiered on June 15, 2019 in a production by the Long Beach Opera Company in San Pedro, California. [8] In 2020 the work won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music. [4] He is the third UCSD professor in the university's 60-year history to win a Pulitzer. [9] He commented, "it’s also very exciting for me that you can create political work that has an impact and speak to issues in our society. I’ve done my career creating political works, and I never thought I would ever get a Pulitzer." [10] He learned that he had won the prize while in a Zoom meeting with music faculty colleagues, so they all heard the phone call; one of them later commented "Best Zoombomb ever!" [9]



(These two works were released on Gramavision 18-8807-1, a 12" long playing record, with Davis as soloist in the piano concerto and dedicatee Shem Guibbory as soloist in the violin concerto. In each, the William McGlaughlin led the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.)



As leader/co-leader

As sideman

With Barry Altschul

With Ray Anderson

With Anthony Braxton

With Marion Brown

With Chico Freeman

With Jay Hoggard

With Leroy Jenkins

With George Lewis

With Bobby Previte

With David Murray

With Wadada Leo Smith

Related Research Articles

John Adams (composer) American composer

John Coolidge Adams is an American composer and conductor of classical music and opera, with strong roots in minimalism.

Pulitzer Prize for Music

The Pulitzer Prize for Music is one of seven Pulitzer Prizes awarded annually in Letters, Drama, and Music. It was first given in 1943. Joseph Pulitzer arranged for a music scholarship to be awarded each year, and this was eventually converted into a prize: "For a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance in the United States during the year."

Charles Wuorinen American composer

Charles Peter Wuorinen was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer of contemporary classical music based in New York City. He performed his works and other 20th-century music as pianist and conductor.

Wadada Leo Smith

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is an American trumpeter and composer, working primarily in the fields of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. He was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Ten Freedom Summers, released on May 22, 2012.

Nilo Cruz Cuban-American playwright and pedagogue

Nilo Cruz is a Cuban-American playwright and pedagogue. With his award of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Anna in the Tropics, he became the first Latino so honored.

Opera Omaha is a major regional opera company in Omaha, Nebraska. Begun in 1958, the professional company is widely known for the International Fall Festival events it held in the 1980s and 1990s, which garnered international attention and served as the U.S. and world premieres for a number of notable works. One of these performances, the 1990 U.S. premiere of the 1841 work Maria Padilla, was among the primary debuts for noted soprano Renee Fleming. "I’ve been calling all my singer friends and saying, 'You’ve got to sing for this company.'" Fleming said at the time. It has "a lot of vision." In 2007, the Toronto Star said "Opera Omaha has grown into one of the continent's most enterprising regional opera companies."

M. Lewis Spratlan Jr. is an American music academic and composer of contemporary classical music.

Kevin Matthew Puts is an American composer, best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his first opera.

Richard Wesley is an American playwright and screenwriter. He is an associate professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the Rita and Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing.

Wakonda's Dream is an English-language opera composed by American Anthony Davis with a libretto by Yusef Komunyakaa. It premiered March 7, 2007 at Omaha, Nebraska's Orpheum. It is about a contemporary Ponca family and the spiritual journey of their son, who is deeply connected to a noted chief, Standing Bear, and an 1879 trial he won in a United States court.

Long Beach Opera is a Southern California opera company serving the greater Los Angeles and Orange County metroplex. Founded in 1979, it is the oldest continually running opera company in the L.A. area. Though small in size, the company has surveyed a stunning breadth of repertoire in 42 seasons—from its adventurous exploration of lesser known works to its daring interpretations of established operas – offering an alternative vision of opera even before L.A. had its own operatic mainstream. In June 2019 LBO presented the world premiere of The Central Park Five, an opera by Anthony Davis with libretto by Richard Wesley, about the Central Park jogger case. The opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in May 2020.

Allan Havis is an American playwright whose work has pronounced political themes and probes colliding cultures. His works range from minimal-language texts to ambiguous, ironic narratives that delineate the genesis, paradoxes, and seduction of evil. Several of his dramas involve Jewish identity, cultural alienation, and universal problems of racism. He has been influenced by August Strindberg and Harold Pinter.

Pheeroan akLaff American jazz drummer

Pheeroan akLaff, born Paul Maddox is an American jazz drummer. Pheeroan akLaff began playing in his hometown of Detroit, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Travis Biggs, Ars Nova, The Ebony Set, The Last Days, and Rod Lumpkin, recorded with Major Lansky. He moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and formed DejaVu with Dwight Andrews. He debuted with Bill Baron in 1975, followed by tenure in Leo Smith's New Dalta Ahkri.

X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X is an opera with music by Anthony Davis and libretto by Thulani Davis, to a story by Christopher Davis. It is based on the life of the civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Trilogy: An Opera Company is a non-profit opera organization in Newark, New Jersey. Trilogy: AOC aims to produce high art evolving from the compositions and life stories of Black people. It embraces quality and diversity whilst supporting the community of black artists.

Conrad Prebys Music Center

The Conrad Prebys Music Center (CPMC) is located on the campus of the University of California San Diego in La Jolla, California. The Music Center houses the university's music department, and is anchored by the 400-seat Concert Hall, in addition to the 170-seat Recital Hall and an Experimental Theatre with variable digital acoustics system.

Thulani Davis is an American playwright, journalist, librettist, novelist, poet, and screenwriter. She is a graduate of Barnard College and attended graduate school at both the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

Andreas Mitisek is the Artistic and General Director of Long Beach Opera, a position he has held since 2003 and from 2012-2016 was the General Director of Chicago Opera Theater. Since his conducting debut with the company in Henry Purcell's The Indian Queen in 1998, Mitisek has since served as conductor, stage director and designer for many Long Beach Opera productions.

Mark Campbell is a New York-based librettist and lyricist whose operas have received both a Pulitzer Prize in Music and a GRAMMY Award. Mark began writing for the stage as a musical theatre lyricist, but turned to libretto-writing after he premiered Volpone, his first full-length opera in 2004 at Wolf Trap Opera Company.

The Central Park Five is a two-act American opera composed by Anthony Davis with libretto by Richard Wesley. It premiered on June 15, 2019, at the Long Beach Opera Company in California. The premiere was directed by Andreas Mitisek and conducted by Leslie Dunner. Davis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for the opera on May 4, 2020. An earlier, shorter version, titled Five, was premiered in Newark, New Jersey, in 2016 by the Trilogy Company. A staged concert production has been announced by New York City Opera for 2021.


  1. AllMusic
  2. 1 2 Cooper, Michael (May 30, 2019). "This Summer, Opera Grapples With Race". New York Times. Retrieved June 8, 2019.
  3. The Central Park Five, by Anthony Davis - The Pulitzer Prizes
  4. 1 2 'Central Park Five' composer Anthony Davis wins the Pulitzer Prize for Music - Yahoo News
  5. 1 2 "Anthony Davis". UC San Diego. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  6. King, Anthony (May 7, 2020). "Anthony Davis Wins Pulitzer Prize for 'The Central Park Five' Opera". UC San Diego News Center. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  7. 1 2 "Revised Amistad makes its mark", Opera Today, May 2008, Accessed June 25, 2019
  8. 1 2 Midgette, Anne (June 23, 2019). "'The Central Park Five' in song: Composer Anthony Davis on his new opera". The Mercury News. Retrieved July 3, 2019.
  9. 1 2 Varga, George (December 6, 2020). "Pulitzer Prize, Library of Congress induction and Grammy nomination cap banner year for San Diego musicians". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  10. Varga, George (May 5, 2020). "UCSD professor Anthony Davis wins Pulitzer Prize for fiery opera 'The Central Park Five'". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
  12. Page, Tim (December 1, 1997). "'AMISTAD' MISSES THE BOAT". Washington Post. Retrieved July 3, 2019.