Mary Watkins

Mary Watkins (1939-), American composer and pianist, has written for orchestra, opera, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, film, theatre, dance, and choral groups.  She was trained classically at Howard University and has received several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as recipient of several commissions from Meet the Composer Commissioning Program. 

It is the upcoming premiere of her new opera about Emmett Till that caught my attention, since Emmett Till was born on this day in 1941. My friend @Wayne Smith had posted a birthday tribute for him that took place today, and I began remembering this tragic story.  In 1955, when he was 14 years old, Emmett was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he violated the strict code of conduct for an African-American male in the Jim Crow-era South by interacting with a white woman in a grocery store.  Several days later, he was kidnapped and murdered by the woman’s husband and brother-in-law. Although the killing received publicity across the country with most people calling for justice, an all-white jury acquitted the men. His murder sparked outrage and activism across the country and was seen as a catalyst for the next phase of the civil rights movement, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott in December of 1955.  Rosa Parks said she was thinking of Emmett Till when she refused to move to the back of the Montgomery, Alabama bus. 

Bob Dylan wrote songs about Emmett Till (“The Death of Emmett Till”); Langston Hughes and composer Jobe Huntley collaborated on an early song about the murder and the trial which now is lost.  Mary Watkins’ opera, “Emmett Till, the opera” was scheduled for a premiere first in October 2020 and is now postponed to 2021.  It will take place at John Jay College, with the Opera Noire of New York, and Harlem Chamber Players. Robert Mack, general director of Opera Noire will cast the production; Liz Player, founder and director of Harlem Chamber Players, will provide the orchestra. Tania Leon will conduct; Damien Sneed will serve as Choral Master. 

Speaking about her process, Mary Watkins says “I lived in a white neighborhood where some of my neighbors were blatant racists.  As a child I heard derogatory remarks and jokes about “colored people/Negroes” and had no peers in a community where many people did not see or respect me or my people.  Fortunately, much of my ability to cope came through my artistic pursuits.  I was able to be alone, and to find ways to deal with the anxiety of being “the only one.”  I dealt with that pain through drawing, story-telling and music.  Setting music to the Libretto of Emmett Till has been an exciting challenge for me. I remember when Emmett Till was murdered, and the horror and sadness that affected me so deeply. I never expected that I would write an opera about Emmett Till’s lynching, but I am deeply grateful that I have been given this opportunity to examine one of the great tragedies of the 20th century .  I am an eclectic composer, and this opera has given me the space to exercise a wide range of musical expression to establish empathy for the characters and the complex emotional texture of the period.” 

The aria below is sung by Emmett’s mother Mamie, regretting her decision to let her son go on the trip. #blackcomposers #emmetttill #operanoire #harlemchamberplayers