Malcolm X Returns to the Opera StageBreaking News
tags: theater, opera, Malcolm X, Arts
In 1986, the novelist and critic Samuel R. Delany interviewed the composer Anthony Davis, whose opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” had just received a triumphant première at New York City Opera. Delany, lamenting the neglect of Black opera composers, said, “From ‘Aida’ and ‘Otello’ to ‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Lost in the Stars,’ we as blacks have been opera-ed, have been operated upon, have been operationalized by white composers so that there seems to be a kind of massive charge running from white musicians to us as black subjects.” Davis’s piece seemed to augur a significant shift. Andrew Porter wrote in this magazine, “ ‘X’ is a work that deserves to enter the American repertory.”
Malcolm X, a relentless critic of American myths of progress, would have been unsurprised to learn that the repertory was not quite ready for an opera about his life. Two decades passed before “X” received a full revival, at Oakland Opera Theatre; then it receded for another decade and a half. The George Floyd protests of 2020 finally induced major American companies to pay more heed to Black composers. Last fall, the Metropolitan Opera presented, for the first time in its history, an African American work—Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” The same composer’s “Champion” is scheduled for next season. And “X” has come back to life: Detroit Opera staged it in mid-May, and Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will give a semi-staged performance in June. In future seasons, the Detroit production will travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, and, in the fall of 2023, the Met.
Davis, a true musical cosmopolitan, merits the attention. He was born in 1951, in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up in State College, Pennsylvania. He explored twentieth-century classical music alongside jazz, studying at Yale while playing gigs with the likes of Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis, and Gerry Hemingway. He also absorbed West African, South Indian, and Indonesian practices. When he turned to opera, in the eighties, he immersed himself in Wagner, Strauss, and Berg. What emerges from this swirl of impressions is a heterogeneous modernist style that mixes dissonant harmony with hypnotic repetition and integrated spells of improvisation.
The libretto for “X” is by the playwright and critic Thulani Davis, the composer’s cousin; the story is by Christopher Davis, his brother. The authors extract a tersely lyrical narrative from the phases of Malcolm X’s evolution: his fraught childhood, his zoot-suit youth, his years in prison, his joining the Nation of Islam, his break with Elijah Muhammad, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his assassination, in 1965, at thirty-nine. At the same time, there is a mythic resonance in Malcolm’s momentous journey across the landscape of mid-twentieth-century Black life: his quest moves from the social to the sacred, the political to the eternal.
The most remarkable sections of the score are those in which Malcolm undergoes spiritual transformations: first his conversion to Islam, then his transcendent experience at Mecca. Hard-driving, jazz-inflected writing in the opening scenes gives way to episodes of entrancing stasis: sustained drones, intricately overlapping rhythmic cycles, choral chants of ritual simplicity. Davis’s study of Indonesian gamelan is apparent; so is his admiration for Wagner. In conversation with Delany, Davis revealed that he took inspiration from the Grail ceremonies of “Parsifal,” which he playfully called the “first minimalist opera.” Murmuring string arpeggios that appear throughout the opera are redolent of the shimmering “Parsifal” prelude. The sum of these various elements is a kind of music that, as Porter observed, had never been heard before.