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UCA to preview scene in Central High opera

Entire production set for July debut by Debra Hale-Shelton | August 29, 2017 at 2:28 a.m.

CONWAY -- With the help of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s historical knowledge and Tania Leon's musical talent, the University of Central Arkansas' dream of an opera commemorating the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School is closer to reality.

Gates, a Harvard University professor and host of the PBS program Finding Your Roots, is serving as a historical consultant on the opera. The Cuban-born Leon, a highly regarded composer and conductor, is the opera's composer. Author and playwright Thulani Davis is the librettist, or writer.

The public will get a preview of one scene from the two-hour opera Sept. 25 at UCA's Reynolds Performance Hall. Gates and Leon also will address the audience and participate in a discussion moderated by UCA journalism professor Donna Lampkin Stephens.

Among the performers will be four UCA graduates singing the arias of four Little Rock Nine students: Nisheedah Golden as Elizabeth Eckford, Ronald W. Jensen-McDaniel as Jefferson Thomas, Candace Harris as Minnijean Brown and Kendra Thomas as Melba Pattillo.

UCA "dared to dream" of commissioning such an opera in 2011, and now that dream is "coming to fruition," Gayle Seymour, associate dean of UCA's College of Fine Arts and Communication, recalled during an on-campus news conference Monday. "We anticipate the opera's July 2018 completion."

Details on a production date and location have not been announced.

Funding for UCA's Central High events has come from various sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Park Service, the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the National Park Service and the Arkansas Arts Council.

The opera preview will be one of numerous events over three days that UCA plans to commemorate the desegregation anniversary as well as the 90th anniversary of the construction of Central High, "billed in 1927 as the most expensive, most beautiful, and largest high school in the nation," according to a UCA news release.

Another highlight of the events, titled "If Buildings Could Talk", will use technology to showcase the Central High building's history and future.

Scott Meador, a UCA digital film-making professor and video artist, will present a 3D-mapped video screening projected directly onto Central High's front facade on the evenings of Sept. 23-24. Each screening will last nine minutes and run every 15 minutes from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Meador's visual effects will transform the building from its blueprint stage to construction to opening day in 1927.

"Through animation techniques, the iconic architectural figures -- representing the attributes of Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation -- will come alive," UCA's release said.

"Using images from school yearbooks and the Tiger mascot, the artist will immortalize Central's essential school spirit. Meador will also use historical footage of the crisis to transport viewers back to 1957 to experience the gripping national drama of desegregation," the university added.

Artwork by students from across Arkansas and symbols of the school's educational mission will end the video on a hopeful note.

"For a once-in-a-lifetime event such as the 60th commemoration, we wanted to find an artistic language that would speak to the widest possible audience and, figuratively, light the world," Seymour said. "The 3D-projection mapping video on the Central High facade will do just that."

UCA composer Blake Tyson has written an original score titled "The Surface of the Sky" to accompany the video presentation.

Thirty-three percussion ensembles from colleges around the country, including Baylor University in Waco, Texas, also plan to perform Tyson's score.

"We anticipate the score alone will become part of the standard repertoire of high school and college percussion ensembles and will live beyond the life of this project," Seymour said.

"The score will be supplemented by program notes and an accompanying demonstration video, ensuring teachers and students will continue to be engaged through music with the struggle for civil rights beyond the commemorative anniversary events," she added.

State Desk on 08/29/2017

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