The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why hasn’t anyone written an opera about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement? | January 19, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is a federal holiday in the US: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

And The Ear has just one question: Why hasn’t anyone yet composed an opera about MLK?

martin luther king 2

His larger-than-life existence has all the necessary operatic elements about it, from being a prisoner in jail and winning the Nobel Peace Prize to meeting with President Johnson in The White House and being assassinated while defending garbage workers in Memphis.

He took part in momentous events, some of them dramatic and violent, that involved huge masses of people.

Plus, he and his staff experienced major individual and personal conflicts.

And the cause he fought for forever altered the course of American history and the civil rights of other individuals and groups advocating women’s rights, Latino rights, gay rights and disabled rights among others.

Martin Luther King speech

Could it be that MLK has not been treated in an opera because the composers are white or non-American?

Who, then, could or should do it?

The contemporary American composer John Adams (below top) comes immediately to mind. He used President Richard Nixon (below bottom is a scene from “Nixon in China, as it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera); physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project in “Doctor Atomic: to create the atomic bomb; and in the still controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” the question of terrorism examined through the story of Jewish tourist Leon Klinghoffer and his Palestinian murderers, to create his successful reality-based historical operas.

John Adams

nixon in china plane

So, why not Martin Luther King Jr.?

Music certainly was vital to King and his campaign.

But what hasn’t he himself been treated as the central figure of an opera?

Maybe the difficulties posed by the King estate would have something to do with it, as they did with the current movie “Selma.”

But one can’t imagine that they are insurmountable.

Anyway, tell us what you think.

Should there be an opera about Martin Luther King Jr.?

Who would be a good composer to write one?

And why do you think one hasn’t already been written? Does racism play a role?

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. There is actually an opera composed by Prof. John Baur about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is titled “The Promise” and was performed in 2004 at the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Germantown, TN. I was backstage hand for the production.


    Comment by Cailin — July 17, 2020 @ 11:39 pm

  2. Really this great information…thanks for share this …
    here is something…


    Comment by reviewexpressblog — August 17, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

  3. ?!?!?!
    In 1969 Nicolas Flagello composed an opera in MLK’s honor called “Passion of Martin Luther King.”
    So… indeed such a thing does exist.


    Comment by Michelle — January 18, 2016 @ 9:37 pm

    • Dear Michelle,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      It is news to me.
      And I am happy be corrected.
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 18, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

  4. An opera about Martin Luther King has been written ten years ago and it’s called ‘The Promise’ and I’ve played it in the Orchestra myself as a violin freshman at the Univ. of Memphis. Maybe this information helps! Best,

    Liviu Craciun


    Comment by Liviu Craciun — January 21, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    • I forgot to mention the composer – It is written by Dr. John Baur, Univ. of Memphis faculty!


      Comment by Liviu Craciun — January 21, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

  5. Here’s another opera project tackling the subject!


    Comment by Jessica Hunt — January 19, 2015 @ 10:39 pm

  6. Jake: Someone sent me the link to your blog today. It is an intriguing question, but I actually have an answer: An opera based on the life of Martin Luther King has been written. By me–John Baur. It is titled The Promise, and, it was performed in Memphis with the orchestra and cast members from the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis. It premiered in 2004 and I have made a DVD of the premiere performance. Unfortunately, I cannot sell it, due to copyright issues with the King Center, but I have promotional copies that I can send if anyone is interested in hearing it.

    Thought you would like to know.

    John Baur
    Professor of Composition and Theory
    University of Memphis


    Comment by John Baur — January 19, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

  7. Yes, King deserves treatment in opera. Glass did it with Gandhi and Anthony Davis did it in 1987 with Malcolm X. Perhaps he would have made an ideal composer? Unfortunately, music students of color are not encouraged to study composition and theory. So there are a shortage of composers of color. This raises another question. What is lost in a story about people of color when the story is told by a White composer? How much of Porgy & Bess and West Side Story was factual and how much was based on stereotypes? Lastly, also interesting of note, there is no regularly performed opera composed by a person of color or woman. Maybe the operatic art form is the problem?


    Comment by A. Cuyler — January 19, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

  8. Hi, Jake! Just a few disparate thoughts regarding this query —

    1 It is indeed an intriguing idea in theory, but I have no hope for it at all in practice. In addition to the Adams operas you cited, I thought of two others — “Porgy and Bess”, and “West Side Story”. The composers for these two — Gershwin and Bernstein, respectively — were well-known entities who provided their top-drawer efforts for these enterprises. Apart from Adams, I know of no composer who has even close to an equivalent standing in the musical world to bring this concept to fruition.

    2 It occurred to me that Duke Ellington just might have been able to pull this off with some semblance of believability — unfortunately, he was just simply too old and too ill by the late ’60s/early ’70s, and in any event was seen as dated by then (what an utter crime!). Hmmm, wonder what he thought of events at that time?

    3 It struck me that Stephen Flaherty, the man who wrote the music for “Ragtime”, might be a candidate for composer; i.e., like Gershwin or Bernstein, one mostly versed in writing for Broadway, but also sophisticated enough to write operatically. Another who fits that type of mold would be Jake Heggie, the composer for “Dead Man Walking”. It would IMO need to be one deeply attuned to different American musical idioms, such as “Ragtime” was.

    4 Just a personal opinion — unlike the Adams operas, which rely heavily on the political narratives associated with the subject matter, I think an MLK opera should focus on the spiritual/religious implications of his predominating contribution to American dialogue — the notion that non-violent resistance was indeed a practical approach to obtain some fundamental rights and respect. A dispassionate presentation of major political milestones from that era would do the entire enterprise a disservice, IMHO.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — January 19, 2015 @ 10:48 am

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