In 1944, two white girls, ages 7 and 11, were found beaten to death in the rural town of Alcolu, S.C. An African-American boy, who said he had seen the two riding bikes on their way to look for flowers, was arrested for their murders. His trial lasted a day. An all-white jury took 10 minutes to convict him.
On June 16, 1944, George Stinney Jr. became the youngest person to be executed in the 20th century. He was 14.
Last year, a judge in South Carolina agreed to rehear the case, at the prompting of Stinney's surviving siblings and civil rights advocates. In December, 70 years after the execution, the child was officially exonerated; the judge pointed to seriously flawed prosecution and defense.
This sobering history is now the subject of "Stinney," an opera that will premiere this week at 2640 Space.
A young North Carolina-born composer, Frances Pollock, who just completed a master's degree in voice at the Peabody Institute, started work on the opera after moving to Baltimore a couple years ago.
"I was living near Lexington Market," Pollock, 24, said, "and walking every day from that beautiful, historic landmark to another, Peabody, and seeing the abject poverty and drug addiction in between. I was reminded a lot of my hometown, Winston-Salem. The two cities are still segregated in a lot of ways."
Pollock started searching for a subject that could be turned into a stage vehicle to address the lingering divide between white and black. She happened upon a report about George Stinney on Upworthy, the aggregate website, and was "blown away by the gravity of the story," she said.
"How could people be so scared of a 14-year-old boy, especially one so small? When he was executed on June 16, 1944," Pollock said, "they had to prop him up on books so he could reach the head piece" of the electric chair.
As disturbing as this history was to Pollock, she wasn't totally surprised. She was already familiar with miscarriages of justice involving race.
As a teen, she saw a documentary, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," detailing the saga of a 19-year-old African-American tried for the 1984 murder of a young white woman in North Carolina. When his initial conviction was overturned on appeal, Hunt was retried by an all-white jury and convicted. DNA evidence cleared him a decade later, but it took another decade before he was exonerated.
"Darryl Hunt was from Winston-Salem, but I had never heard about this case," Pollock said. "The correlations to George Stinney are very similar. I was flabbergasted by the documentary. I got to meet Darryl a number of times and invited him to speak at my school. He became one of my mentors."
Pollock, who has an undergraduate degree in theory and composition from Furman University in South Carolina, kept digging into the Stinney story and became convinced she should bring it to the stage.
Last spring, she approached composer and Peabody faculty member David Smooke and asked him to help her with the project. At that point, Smooke knew her primarily as a singer. (Pollock made a splash as one of Cinderella's stepsisters in Peabody Opera Theatre's production of Massenet's "Cendrillon" this season.)
"My initial reaction," Smooke said, "was, 'No, this is too important a subject. You can't do this unless you are prepared to do it justice.' But once I got an idea of the amount of thought and research Frances had put into it, and once I saw the music she had written, I realized she really did know what she was doing. And, besides, she was going to do it anyway."
There is no mistaking Pollock's determination and conviction. While composing the score and going over it with Smooke ("David looked at every single note," she said), Pollock set about raising money for the premiere.
In short order, she succeeded in securing funds, including a Johns Hopkins University Diversity Innovation Grant, and what she characterizes as a "very generous contribution" from the office of Peabody's dean, Fred Bronstein.
With a budget of about $12,000, the production of "Stinney" will feature a cast of 23. The role of the boy is a speaking one; all the others are sung. The score calls for a 10-person chamber ensemble.
"I've composed lots of art songs and chamber works, but nothing I'm as proud of as this," Pollock said.
The two-act opera, with a libretto by the composer, does not flinch from the disturbing details of the case — the murder of the girls and discovery of their bodies; the interrogation of George; the execution; the racist language and attitudes of police and townfolk; the struggle of the parents to cope with their losses.
"At every moment in the opera, Frances has tried to make the music as expressive as possible," Smooke said. "She thinks about what each scene needs to have. There's a huge range of styles in the music. The opening of Act 1 is very brutal and purely experimental, with extended vocal techniques and no bar lines. The opening of Act 2 is pure Southern gospel."
Added Pollock: "Jazz, gospel, Baptist hymns — that was my world growing up, and it was George Stinney's world."
Smooke, a co-producer of the premiere production, has also been impressed with the attention to detail that Pollock has shown in creating the opera, right down to specifics of a death by electric chair. "I hate to think what Google and the NSA think of her spending a lot of time researching execution protocol," Smooke said.
Pollock, who is also serving as stage director, has been working hard with the cast to produce the emotional intensity she envisioned.
"It's the most challenging thing I've ever done," said mezzo-soprano Tia Price, who sings the role of George's mother. "The story takes you to such dark parts of human nature. To be honest, I've gone back and forth about being involved, but now I'm comfortable with it. I'm glad we're putting all of this on the table and giving people an opportunity to look at themselves."
The contemporary relevance of Stinney's fate could not be stronger in the wake of the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, as well as incidents elsewhere in the country involving young black men shot by the police.
The unrest in Baltimore included some vandalism close to Peabody and caused rehearsal time to be lost because of the curfew.
"It made this project feel very intense," said Pollock, who took part in some of the protest marches. "Freddie Gray was my age. I have nothing but respect for cops in Baltimore, but I can't imagine living in a world being scared of the people who are supposed to protect you."
After the unrest broke out over the Gray case, "Stinney" cast member Emily Tate felt differently about the piece.
"It wasn't just another opera I was doing," said the soprano, a grad student at Peabody. "It became so real. It's shocking to see the racism that still exists, to see we still have so far to go. I think this opera can directly affect people."
Tariq Al-Sabir, a tenor who has just finished his senior year at Peabody and plays George Stinney's father, said troubles in Baltimore helped give the opera "a very fresh feel. It's made all of us a lot more sensitive to racial prejudice."
For 13-year-old A.J. Garrett, learning about George Stinney has been an education.
"I did some research about him, and it was upsetting because he didn't do it," Garrett said. "It was such a brutal way to execute someone. I thought he would be a great character to play. He was a young boy just about my age, and he might have been my height."
A.J. finds the interrogation scene in "Stinney" the toughest to do.
"It's not easy to hear that language, with all the [actors playing the] policemen being Caucasian and I'm African-American. To get through it, I just like to stay positive."
A.J., who has never been to an opera before, is enjoying the opportunity to be in one, even with just a speaking role. He's getting quite an earful from the singers — "It's pretty cool, but sometimes they blow you out of the room," he said — and developing an appreciation for the art form.
"It's impressive," he said, "a very powerful way to tell a story. This story can make you upset, but the music can be very beautiful, very moving. Maybe this opera will give the city a message everybody needs right now."