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CCM alumnus Leslie B. Dunner conducts Pulitzer Prize-winning opera 'The Central Park Five'

Anthony Davis' opera won the prestigious prize after Dunner led the world premiere in June 2019

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music graduate Leslie B. Dunner (DMA Orchestral Conducting, ’82) conducted the premiere of Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five last June with California’s Long Beach Opera. In May, the opera won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Composed by Davis with a libretto by Richard Wesley, the opera was described by the jury of the prestigious award as, “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”

The Central Park Five’s musical style combines elements of jazz, hip-hop, blues and other historically African-American genres. The opera centers on the five African American and Latino teenagers who were unjustly convicted of a Central Park assault in the 1980s, but were exonerated through DNA evidence 13 years later.

Leslie Dunner poses with his conductor's batton

CCM alumnus Leslie B. Dunner.

CCM audiences may remember Dunner from his recent appearance on campus. In October 2019, Dunner returned to CCM to conduct the Philharmonia in its “CSI Halloween: Post-Mortem” performance. While on campus, Dunner connected with CCM conducting students over dinner and worked with them in studio class as well as in rehearsals to prepare for the performance.

An award-winning conductor with a glowing international reputation, Dunner is the Music Director of the South Shore Opera Company in Chicago and serves as the conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, the World Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Interlochen Arts Camp.

Dunner began rehearsals for The Central Park Five shortly after his teaching and conducting work at the Interlochen Arts Academy ended for the 2018-19 school year. In an interview for Interlochen’s website, Dunner commented on the importance of telling the stories and struggles of black Americans through the lens of opera.

“Anthony Davis said something very interesting,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “He had an interview where he was asked what he thought was relevant with opera. Because the interviewer said, ‘Opera was becoming a dead medium.’ And Anthony replied, ‘No. It's not a dead medium. It's a dead medium for your stories. It's not a dead medium for our stories because our stories have not been told in opera.’”

For Dunner, the story of the Central Park Five is very personal. “I grew up in the area where all of this took place,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “I lived eight blocks away. I used to go to that part of Central Park as a kid. All of what went on during that time I have been through.”

From the Central Park Five to today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, stories of cultural, racial and socio-economic injustices regularly make headlines across the country. “The cycle is still being perpetuated,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “What happened to them should not be happening anymore. Yet it is still happening. That is the relevance. That's why this was important.”

One month after Dunner led the world premiere of The Central Park Five at Long Beach Opera, another opera focused on wrongful convictions premiered at Cincinnati Opera. The stories of six people who were wrongfully imprisoned and then freed were told in Blind Injustice, a collaboration with CCM, UC’s Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) and the Young Professionals Choral Collective. Based on casework by the OIP and the book “Blind Injustice” by UC law professor and OIP Director Mark Godsey, the highly acclaimed opera was directed by CCM Professor of Opera Robin Guarino and featured several current and former CCM students in the cast.

Efforts to share diverse stories through the performing arts is not limited to tales of wrongful convictions and struggle. In February, Dunner conducted the Toledo Symphony in a program that highlighted classical musicians of color. Selections included excerpts from Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, Duke Ellington’s The River Suite, André Previn’s Honey and Rue and William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, among other pieces. As Music Director and Interim Artistic Director of Chicago’s South Shore Opera, Dunner furthers the company’s mission to provide greater opportunities for professional artists of color, especially local black artists, in performances of classic and contemporary operas.

“We are just now coming to the foreground,” Dunner tells Interlochen. “So we are using this medium to tell our stories, and we are modifying the medium so that it's relevant to our population, and that's what's interesting, and that's what's exciting, and that's what I want to be a part of.”

Read Dunner’s full interview on Interlochen’s website.

Learn more about Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, The Central Park Five.

CCM alum Leslie B. Dunner poses with his conductor's baton

CCM alumnus Leslie B. Dunner.

Leslie B. Dunner serves as the conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, the World Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Interlochen Arts Camp. He has been Music Director of the South Shore Opera Company in Chicago since 2014. He has also served as Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet and the symphony orchestras of Annapolis, Dearborn and Nova Scotia. He spent 11 seasons at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), first as Resident, then Associate and finally as Assistant Conductor, while serving concurrently as Music Director of the DSO's youth orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra. Besides holding principal conducting positions at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Festival Orchestra and Louisville Ballet, he undertook a season as Interim Music Director of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Dunner's guest engagements with major orchestras throughout the world include two years with the Chicago Symphony and five as Cover Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, where he assisted during a four-week European tour. He has appeared with such distinguished ensembles as the Atlanta Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Dallas Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and Seattle Symphony, as well as orchestras in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ukraine, Russia and South Africa. An avid ballet conductor, Dunner has taken the podiums of the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Michigan Opera Theatre, Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, Birmingham Royal Ballet and South African Ballet Theatre, among others.

In addition to his professional conducting work, Dunner is a dedicated music educator. He began his career in music education as Assistant Professor at Minnesota's Carleton College and has continued to lead youth orchestras throughout his career. The first American prize-winner in the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition, he is also a recipient of the Leonard Bernstein American Conductors Award and the NAACP's James Weldon Johnson and Distinguished Achievement Awards.

Dunner holds a Bachelor's degree in clarinet performance from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, a Master's in music theory and musicology from Queens College at the City University of New York, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in orchestral conducting from CCM.


Story by CCM Graduate Student Alexandra Doyle

Featured image at top: Long Beach Opera’s production of The Central Park Five. Photo credit: Long Beach Opera