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At a Moment of Racial Tumult, the Little Rock Nine Inspire an Opera

Ms. León spent Monday morning at Central High School, where former President Bill Clinton and a host of dignitaries honored the eight surviving members of the group, and listened as they shared memories of their harrowing year on the front lines of a civil rights flash point. They spoke with urgency of the work still to be done.

Ernest Green, the school’s first African-American graduate, described progress as having no finish line, and drew parallels between the civil rights era and the racial turbulence of today — from the nine African-American churchgoers who were slain in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., to the white supremacists who marched earlier this year in Charlottesville, Va.

“Emmett Till turns to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, protesting Nazis,” Mr. Green said, comparing the victim of an infamous 1955 lynching to the young woman slain in August while protesting white supremacists. “Muhammad Ali turns to Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee for injustice. The Little Rock Nine turns to the Charleston Nine, paying the ultimate sacrifice.”

Hearing them speak in person, Ms. León said afterward as she stood inside the school, was invaluable. “It’s important to see them,” she said. “To hear their syntax, to feel their personalities.”


Former President Bill Clinton, center, with the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine.

Mitchell Pe Masilun/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, via Associated Press

Her new opera, which was commissioned by the university here, is a musical tapestry of jazz, gospel and snippets of ragtime, with a cast of characters that includes the nine students, the families who supported them, and historical figures, among them President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Louis Armstrong.

Recent American operas have not shied away from using history to explore current controversies. When their Civil War opera “Appomattox” was revived by the Washington National Opera in 2015, the composer Philip Glass and his librettist, the playwright Christopher Hampton, substantially revised it to make voting rights, which they saw as under assault, its central theme.

“I think artistic expression gives us a chance to look at things through very different lenses,” said Terrence J. Roberts, who entered Central in 1957 as a 15-year-old junior and later earned a doctorate in psychology. “Through the means of the opera, we can convey the emotions that a lot of people don’t understand. They can get it that way.”

The integration of Central High School — a key test of the federal government’s ability to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that public schools had to be desegregated — ends only the first act of the opera. The second act recounts the toll from that tumultuous, sometimes violent year on the students and their families — as the nine were tormented in school, and some of their parents were fired from their jobs in retaliation.

The following year, in 1958, Gov. Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas took the extraordinary step of moving to close all of Little Rock’s high schools to slow integration — forcing some of the nine to finish school elsewhere. It made them, in the words of Ms. Davis’s libretto, “refugees of a battle we won.”


Ms. León with performers from “Civil Twilight,” a 60th-anniversary commemoration event at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.

Andrea Morales for The New York Times

The idea for the opera came about after the university began screening the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD simulcasts, and Rollin Potter, who was then the dean of its College of Fine Arts and Communications, became intrigued by operas that grappled with recent history, including “Nixon in China” and Mr. Adams’s “Dr. Atomic,” about the making of the atomic bomb.

He thought of the Little Rock Nine, which some of his colleagues were studying. “One day I said, ‘Golly, there’s an opera here,’” he recalled. (It is unclear where the opera might be performed once it is finished; there have been preliminary discussions with a few companies.)

To compose it, the university turned to Ms. León, who was born and raised in Cuba and who has become an important figure in American music since moving to New York in 1967. She was a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem; an organizer of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s pathbreaking community concerts with Julius Eastman; the music director of “The Wiz” on Broadway; and the composer of “Scourge of Hyacinths,” an opera based on a play by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.

She originally asked her friend the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to write the Little Rock Nine libretto; when his work as a filmmaker intruded, he put her in touch with Ms. Davis — who wrote the librettos of Anthony Davis’s operas “X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X)” and “Amistad.” Dr. Gates served as a historical consultant on the opera.

Ms. Davis recalled watching the Little Rock standoff unfold on television as a child growing up in Hampton, Va.


Ms. León, center, participating in a community event at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.

Andrea Morales for The New York Times

“A couple of years later, I was asked to be a guinea pig for integration in my hometown,” she said in a telephone interview. “All my impressions about what I was in for came from what I saw on TV when I was 8 — which is to say, I thought it might be very frightening.”

She agreed to do it, but the local school board ultimately decided to postpone integration.

At a panel discussion at the university, one of several events held in the region recognizing the contributions of the Little Rock Nine, Dr. Gates spoke of the need for the new work now. “It’s an important time to do this opera,” he said. “Because if you think about it, it serves as an allegory for social forces that we see, that many of us thought were long suppressed, or repressed or dead. It’s like a horror movie: The zombie is coming back.”

(A short drive from where he spoke, the owners of a local cafe had just announced that they fired an employee for allowing an after-hours meeting of white supremacists there, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.)

At a twilight commemoration, Ms. León said that she hoped that using opera would help audiences see the real people behind the history.

“We need a little more compassion,” she said, “and I hope that in these 60 years we have grown in empathy.”

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