"I Can't Breathe"

Music by: Leslie Savoy Burrs
Libretto by: Brandon J. Gibson

Leslie Savoy Burrs

Leslie Savoy Burrs, composer

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“The opera explores through vignettes the life and tragedy of six generic, fictional characters—characters that suggest and symbolize participants in the tragic, real-life incidences of police conduct gone horribly wrong—incidences that should have otherwise been an innocent interaction between law enforcement and African Americans…or no interaction at all.”


“Mr. Gibson’s poetic libretto takes on the six individuals—known only as “The Mother”, “The Athlete”, “The Thug”, “The Scholar”, “The Father”, and “The Lover”— revealing the particulars of the good, the bad, and the humdrum everyday things that define the lives of the characters and makes them relatable. Each character reveal, though, comes to a screeching halt as a fatal encounter with police, an encounter so unnecessary as to defy logic and that cries out with the eternal question: Why?”


-Arts Knoxville


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Brandon J. Gibson

Brandon J. Gibson, librettist

Jacob Lay-the Thug.png

Jacob Lay, bass-baritone as "The Thug"

Photo courtesy of Marble City Opera

"I Can't Breathe" is an opera that explores themes of grief, loss, love, identity, and hope. It was inspired by and written in the wake of repeated instances of fatal police brutality perpetrated against African Americans in Spring 2020. Through the course of the opera, we meet six fictional characters, each named for a different archetype. In one way or another, each of their lives is forever changed by interactions with law enforcement that go tragically wrong. Through a series of vignettes, the opera seeks to answer the question, "How many more"? ​​

Marble City Opera commissioned the opera in consortium with Pacific Opera Project, Opera Columbus, and Cleveland Opera Theater. Marble City Opera premiered the work with three sold-out performances February 24, 25 & 26, 2022, at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville, TN.

Reviews from the World Premiere

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“Through Gibson’s writing, “I Can’t Breathe” took on a substantially broader meaning.”

"“In the end, the reality of the expression “I Can’t Breathe” is no longer just an anthem for horrible mistreatment and often criminal behavior by your police toward Black people. It’s about the totality of Black people’s collective inability to realize the potential and wholeness of American life because of both the blatant, and sometimes unconscious, ways they can’t be completely free."

“I Can’t Breathe” is a metaphor for all of it.”

-Knox TN Today

Jayme Alilaw, soprano as "The Mother"

Photo courtesy of Marble City Opera

"The opera’s opening night debuted to a sold-out crowd at Beck Cultural Center and ended with multiple rounds of bows to a thunderous standing ovation."


"Another striking observation was the toll these scenarios take on the characters’ mental health. The titular phrase often was used when a character experienced intensely painful grief or anxiety. Even if the audience members all were not necessarily experienced in the topical matter, the painstaking details Gibson included in rounding out their personalities, as well as the human moments they shared in their interactions, showed that, when a life is cut short, so much is lost to that person – but also to their family, friends, lovers and community."


-Blank Newspaper

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Breyon Ewing, tenor as "The Athlete"

Photo courtesy of Marble City Opera

Other Reviews

"The stories are the essence of this work."

"...each of the stories has its own fascination, powered by the inevitability we see coming, like a Passion Play we ritually reenact each year, knowing full well the outcome."

Eric A. Gordon-People's World


West Coast Premiere (May 13-15,2022)

El Portal Theatre w/Pacific Opera Project

Pictured (left to right)

Geoff Peterson as “The Scholar”
Jayme Alilaw as “The Mother”
Orson Van Gay as “The Athlete”

Audrey Yoder as “The Lover”
Michael Washington as “The Thug”

Co-directed by: Sierra Hammond & Josh Shaw
Music direction/Conducted by: Josh Foy


Photo Courtesy of Pacific Opera Project

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