IT’S BEEN TOLD countless times. In 60 years, there have been books, documentaries, feature films and songs, renditions and tributes of every stripe—all of them centered around that day in 1957 when a group of nine students became a symbol for something much larger than themselves. But best as we can figure, that story has never been expressed in a way like this.
For the past four years, the Cuban-born composer and conductor Tania León has been at work on an opera that would bring the story to the stage. And while we admit we were a bit skeptical at first, given León’s bonafides as a Guggenheim fellow and a Pulitzer nominee, and the involvement of celebrated public intellectual Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who assisted with the historical research, it seems fair to assume this telling will rank among the best.
To get a sense of how the University of Central Arkansas-commissioned project—which earned the college its first NEA grant to help make the idea a reality—came about, we turned to León for some insight. An edited version of the interview follows.
“WHEN I ARRIVED in the U.S. from Cuba, Martin Luther King Jr. was alive, and I saw him at the marches through television. I was here when he lost his life, and by the same token, Robert Kennedy and the succession of events that followed: Selma, the walks, the three girls who were killed in the church by the bomb. But I didn’t really start getting interested in the Little Rock Nine until Dr. Rollin Potter, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication at UCA, called me and told me about the events surrounding the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Before I told him whether I was going to get involved in the opera or that I was interested, I researched. And then, through my research, I learned what has happened.
That’s how the whole thing started—that call from Dr. Potter. First, we had a Skype meeting that was very, very beautiful and very enlightening. Then I was brought to Little Rock. They gave me a tour of the high school. And I met Elizabeth Eckford and Minnie Jean—I believe I spoke with her on the phone. It was such a big thing for me. These people—I’ve seen the pictures, read the stories, seen them on the YouTube clips, and all of a sudden, I was talking to them as adults. I was hearing their actual voices, of the present—right in front of me. It was real. It was real. To be in front of that high school, in the pictures that I have seen. It was real to be in the gas station, which I had seen depicted in so many movies of that era. And walking in the gardens of that place and imagining all of that event happening there. Of course, it was silent at that point. But all those voices, you can imagine in your mind.
In terms of how it’s been structured: Thulani Davis, the librettist, has tried to piece different events of importance to the story, to touch base with many aspects that made this possible. Her research and the research of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. have been very deep. The story has been condensed, but it has the main ingredients for anyone who wasn’t acquainted with this narrative to get an idea of what happened. But I believe that its center is around those nine lives, mainly their feelings and what they went through early in their lives, and the consequences that could have weakened them. And yet, to the contrary, they became very strong.
You know, for me to read the story of the Little Rock Nine or see the clips on television or YouTube, or things like that, it was like seeing the same thing play out that’s been playing out for centuries. The only thing is that this was closer, and it was closer for me because it was in the same land where I have been living. Even though it happened prior to my arrival, it is not dissimilar. It is very, very similar to many things that I have studied in history, in the history of the world—played out by different characters, played out by people who look different. However, it is the same manipulation from one human being to another.
But of course, when that becomes a cause: In unity, there’s strength.”
Although the debut performance of Little Rock Nine may still be a little ways off, León and Gates will be in Conway on Sept. 25 for a preview at Reynolds Performance Hall. UCA has worked with partners in Little Rock on a handful of other events to mark the 60th anniversary, including a 3-D-mapped video that will be projected on the exterior of the school over two evenings, Sept. 23 and 24. For more information, visit uca.edu/cfac/central60 and centralhigh60th.org.