Bernadette Speach

The Little Rock Nine

Music by Bernadette Speach
Libretto by Thulani Davis

About the work

The Little Rock Nine tells the story of nine students, ages 14 and 15, who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957-58. The world watched this episode of social change at the time because these young people were the first to test whether it was possible for Americans to end school segregation as ordered by the 1954 Supreme Court ruling known as Brown v. Board of Education. We know now how long a fight that has been but it would not have begun for years more had these nine teens not started and persisted through the terror of the first year, during which they were beaten, set on fire, taunted and threatened with death. Their parents lost jobs and were threatened as well. The opera allows us a peek into the internal lives of the people involved during a time when, to keep the struggle going, they never told anyone what they suffered. Neither children nor parents confided in each other. Using memoirs and interviews from years later, the libretto tells us what was not told then. Eight of the nine survive today.

SPECS

Duration:

90'

Movements:

Two acts

Instrumentation:

The entire vocal ensemble consists of 22 singers, most doubling parts.

Orchestra: a 40-piece ensemble.

BACKGROUND

Date of composition:

2023

Commissionner:

University of Central Arkansas

Performances:

To be premiered in 2023-24

ABOUT THE COMPOSER

Bernadette Speach is a musician first, but throughout her life, the pianist and composer has found herself taking on the role of educator. Over a more than 40-year career that started as a Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet and evolved into arts administrator and college professor, Speach has instilled in countless others the appreciation and passion for music that drives her distinctive sound.

Her latest project, the opera The Little Rock Nine, a collaboration with librettist Thulani Davis, tells the story of nine students, ages 14 and 15, who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957-58, forcing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to order U.S. troops of the 101st Airborne to protect them. In what has become her signature melding of musical styles, Speach bares the raw emotion of a pinnacle moment in U.S. history.

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