Telling the stories of crooked DAs and a corrupt justice system through opera – a conversation with David Cote

By Joe McCarthy

A Man in Jail - image provided by David Cote

Recently, I spoke with David Cote, who for the better part of 20 years, has worked in New York City as a playwright, opera librettist, actor, director, theatre critic, and arts journalist. Cote was in Nevada on retreat working, writing and hiding away at the idyllic Resident Artist Program in Silver City. 

David Cote at the Piano – image provided by David Cote

A Bard college graduate, the experimental school in New York’s Hudson Valley, Cote’s road to success was never clear or straight. He began as a starving actor in off-off-Broadway and honed his talents through a variety of jobs he was unafraid to take on until the breaks began to fall his way.   

This artist retreat is housed in a distinctly shaped geodesic dome house on No Name Road overlooking Silver City. The dome goes by the name of the McCormick House. It was built by Sandy and Jim McCormick, the renowned Nevada visual artist and educator, in the early 1970s in their rush to get back to the land, away from the hubbub of Reno to live with like-minded iconoclasts. 

This residency program was launched a number of years back by Jim’s visionary son Theo McCormick and Theo’s partner, the indomitable Quest Lakes.  Theo and Quest turned this project into an enormously influential part of Silver City’s resilient community activism.

While in Silver City, Cote’s helped guide the residents in the creation of a short piece centered on the community’s chagrin with a disingenuous mining company CEO. 

Cote’s most recent operatic libretto, Blind Injustice, sold out at the Cincinnati Opera House. Scott Davenport Richards scored the music. Robin Guarino directed. The performance received many sensational reviews.  CityBeat declared the opera to be a masterpiece.

Most of my conversation with Cote centered around his libretto, the Ohio Innocence Project and its co-founder Mark Godsey, author, and former prosecutor. Godsey wrote the 2017 book, Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Incarceration. Blind Injustice unveils the shocking, and all too common, unscrupulousness of an aggressive justice system that rewards convictions secured by fear, coercion, confirmation bias, and fraudulent evidence. 

Cote focused his script on four cases that exonerated six people who had collectively served more than 120 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. He used interviews with the exonerees and facts from Godsey’s book.

Blind Injustice – image provided by David Cote 

“It potentially could have had a lot of pitfalls for me. Why are you writing this? Have you been to jail? Have you been wrongfully convicted?  What qualifies you to write this thing? All I can say is, ‘I’m a journalist.’ They hired me. It is a tremendous responsibility to be true to the voices of the people who actually went through this stuff because I can never know what it’s like to have your life turned upside down to be accused of something you didn’t do and then spend 15-20 years in prison. It helped of course that we interviewed all the people … about 40 percent of the libretto is verbatim, with a little bit of massaging of quotes … it was mostly verbatim taken from interviews … their voice embedded in the libretto … narrated by them in their own words.

“We tackled the fact that forensic sciences are often junk science, and that they’re discredited like bite marks or boot marks or sometimes blood spatter analysis is not necessarily foolproof, not like DNA.  DNA is much more foolproof piece of evidence.

“I have this piece called The Wonder of Forensics, which is sort of a mock triumphal song about how it’s infallible, the forensics as a science. We live in an age of science and this is verifiable truth … allowed me to do a patter song, a lot of rhymes, a lot of wordplay and rhymes … the piece even has a rap in it for one of the cases, the East Cleveland Three, they were teenagers when they were accused of a shooting that they had witnessed but didn’t commit.

“They spent 20 years in prison. I knew I had to have a musical number that showed how explicit the racism of the system is and the rage that these men must have felt, this injustice was done to them. I thought I could do a rap. Even though I am the whitest guy. I like Wu Tang Clan and I blame Hamilton. I wrote a rap not in a traditionally beat-heavy hip hop style, but in syncopated, yet bonafide rap. We all ended up happy with it in performance.”

I asked Cote about the role of opera in present-day society?

“It’s a big, big question. Everyone’s wrestled with it. Tolstoy wrote a whole book about the uselessness of art, the selfishness of artists … I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, and the only art I had was coming at me from the TV and that wasn’t always very artful. It was entertainment. Yet I  absorbed it. In school, of course, I absorbed Shakespeare, and that was a revelation to me. The language of Shakespeare became this doorway to a realm of words that had potency and weight and history and had music to them.

“And then, of course, movies and music … I listened to a lot of rock and pop, all these diverse influences went into my sense of what art is. When I went to college you start to draw distinctions.

“I think that the vast majority of people, Americans, they absorb a constant stream of entertainment. It’s diverting, it’s exciting. It’s titillating. It’s stimulating. Pop music, TV, movies, talk radio, a constant stream of data and information entertainment. Whether it affects them as people, whether (it) really gets inside them, I think it is questionable. The distinction I would make is there’s a difference between entertainment and art. Entertainment is very common and art is very rare. Art to me makes a great novel or a great play or poem or piece of music that you can keep returning to. It’s a well that keeps filling you up. You discover more and more layers to the thing. I enjoy a silly summer blockbuster movie as much as anyone. Then it’s sort of over and I forget about it. Whereas, I keep going to the same poems and books and pieces of music because they moved me.

“I personally believe that if more people took the time to attend art events or to challenge themselves with difficult art, I do believe it would make them better people, the improving quality of art and all that. I do believe it. There’s a social function of art that gets people together in spaces if it’s a performance or dance or recitation, a concert, a play, or a movie that gets people physically to a place and gets them interacting in a space to experience a piece of really dense, interesting art.

“Then there’s the other aspect of art, which it’s purely individual. That’s if a work is truly complex and challenging and interesting, it will affect people on an individual level. It won’t make you all think the same thing in the room. It’s not a church service where we’re all there to say, oh, yes, we believe in this thing and we worship this thing together. It’s actually quite the opposite. A great work of art, however, will radically individualize the space, with everybody having different feelings at the same time – perhaps difficult feelings. Maybe you’re seeing a work of art that’s very dark and tragic and dangerous and weird. It makes you think, am I weird? Am I dangerous? I’m broken and I am having these feelings. These are very difficult feelings, and that’s great. That’s good. It makes you critical. It makes you look inside yourself. It makes you doubt. It makes you a better citizen, I believe.”

How has politics influenced your work over the years?

“We’ve all in the last few years become more politicized because the situation is difficult. 

“I did this opera Blind Injustice about the systemic failures of the criminal justice system that railroads innocent people, people who do not commit crimes … true stories of the four cases of wrongful conviction … exposing the culture dominant in DA offices and among prosecutors. Every day, every week, it seems that there’s a story about some crooked prosecutor who suppressed evidence … to deliver the result they wanted … that opened my eyes to how broken in many ways our criminal justice system … turning a blind eye to prosecutorial misconduct. My participation in that piece of art has made me more politically aware. And people who see the opera will also have that kind of awakening as well.”

How did you become a writer? 

“It was a long journey to learn how to be a writer … I moved to New York many years ago, and I spent about eight years as an actor mostly off-off-Broadway. For those who don’t know, off-off-Broadway simply means theaters that are 99 seats or fewer. It was crazy experimental work. I loved it. It was wild. I was young. I was broke all the time. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it, I hated it. 

“Then in 2000, a job opened up at Time Out New York … I had already started dipping into DIY journalism … Time Out had a staff position. I applied. I got it. I was very conscious of going over to the dark side as an actor and theatre-maker who’s going to be a theater critic. I thought everyone’s gonna hate me … but it was a chance to call attention to companies and playwrights that I really liked … there was an advocacy quality to it … I was at TimeOut for many years and then about 10 or 11 years ago, I really got a bug not to act anymore, but to write creatively. (I saw) a new opera by the composer David Lang that was this amazing (work) … and the libretto was by a playwright, Mac Wellman, who was a wonderful sort of legendary experimental playwright … I saw this opera and it opened my eyes to language, interesting music … amazing theater … and I thought, I want to write for opera.”

Cote approached friends from Bard who were composers. After badgering them for a while, they let him write some text. “That’s how it happened. We got a commission for a 30-minute opera that was done in London in 2008 and that was tremendous fun to work on … (more) operas continued after that.” 

As a librettist, how do you work with the composer?

“People sometimes ask which comes first, the music or the words. The words come first. I’ve never heard of the opposite. Right now I’m drafting this libretto … it will change a lot …(the script) based on the life and death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was the founder of American Atheists in the 60s and 70s. She was part of the Supreme Court case in 1963 getting mandatory prayer banned in schools, which made her very unpopular in America. She loved the hatred of the crowd. She was a larger than life figure unfortunately murdered by somebody who worked for her.

“Basically we ask ‘how are we gonna tell the story?’  A 90-minute opera, how many scenes does it have? What do you want to emphasize? When we have an idea of the story, I’ll just go off and write however many pages. A libretto is not like a play. It’s not like a poem. It’s not like a screenplay. It is not song lyrics necessarily. It draws from all those things … a libretto has to be somewhat terse and compressed.

“In a sense, you have to overthink it, then you have to underwrite it … come up with a very simple set of lines like, ‘I look outside the door, and I see the sky and it’s on fire, and I ask myself why’ … sort of banal or interesting, but the composer takes those words and turns it into an end of the world scenario … the music is really going to support it. If there’s a song, I write some lyrics, which I love doing. I love writing songs … sometimes there’s dialogue, sometimes there’s an aria, a monologue. If it’s 20 or 30 pages, or 40 pages, and you give it to the composer, they monkey around with it, and they may change it. It’s kind of mysterious.” 

What do you dislike about the contemporary art world? 

“I dislike the fact that it’s so underfunded and depends so much on private donations. I dislike that it’s dependent on the largesse of wealthy people. It’s great that they give money … if you’re a donor, that doesn’t mean that you dictate with the artist, but it’s considered disposable. It’s a negligible public good. It should be considered as valuable as gas, electricity, water, and funded as such. The entertainment industry will take care of itself. There’ll always be a majority of people who want to have cheap, easy entertainment. That’s great, but art should be considered a civic responsibility and a public good.”