A new generation of operagoers might use the slang term “fire” to praise this incandescent 36th-anniversary version of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, reimagined for its Metropolitan Opera premiere on Nov. 3rd .
Ablaze with hip-hop flare and strobe-lit Afrofuturistic staging (complete with a glowing Mothership), this 21st-century edition of X will run through Dec. 2nd at Lincoln Center, steps away from where it debuted in 1986 at the New York City Opera.
The centenary of Malcolm’s birth will be observed in just 18 months, yet some question how much enduring progress toward racial equality has been achieved since he was slain in 1965. The true story of the civil rights activist’s violence-filled life and death, the stuff of Greek tragedy and plausible as an operatic plot line, feels as real and relevant as ever.
Composer Anthony Davis told BMint, “This production brings Malcolm out of the past and into the future. What does his legacy mean today, after George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?”
Remarkably, X was created and has now been recreated by three members of one extended family: Anthony Davis (2020 Pulitzer winner for his opera The Central Park Five); brother Christopher “Kip” Davis, who originated the X project and authored its story; and their second cousin, poet Thulani Davis, who penned the libretto. Back in the day, the Davises consulted on X with Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz, and she accompanied Beverly Sills, then General Manager of City Opera, to its premiere.
Anthony Davis, then 34, composed the 500-page X score in pen, boldly channeling his gifts as a jazz artist to incorporate an improvisatory passage for an 8-member horn section. To rework the score this time around, Davis digitized his handwritten document in Finale before distributing it. Asked about these latest revisions, he notes that the “role of improvisation remains the same… with different players who bring their own sensibilities to the orchestra.”
This production trimmed repetitions, and reworked the opening scene to make it “more dramatic,” he said. He re-conceived the beginning and ending of X , and added a new scene with Malcolm and his wife Betty to conclude Act 2.
Known for his experimental approach, Davis writes music that draws upon several global traditions, including south Indian Carnatic and Indonesian gamelan music. In the Met’s X program notes, he cited influences ranging from the “post-tonal harmonic language of Berg and Stravinsky” to the “improvised and subversive spirit of the blues.” All were audible in his score, at times unresolved and atonal, yet with jazzy and lyrical passages, some evoked another Davis …Miles.
Anthony Davis even acknowledged that a 1973 album called “Space is the Place” by Sun Ra, a free jazz artist closely associated with Afrofuturism may have inspired certain whole-tone melodies in X. (Scoff if you will. Both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have celebrated Afrofuturism, and a replica of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and culture in Washington, D.C.)
In her libretto, Thulani Davis skillfully harnessed the electrifying rhetoric of Malcolm’s great speeches (e.g., “The Ballot or the Bullet”), leavening her lyrics with his characteristically earthy barbs. Long before Malcolm’s silencing for uttering that memorable “chickens coming home to roost” line about the JFK assassination, Davis has him singing it as a street preacher. This country expression hearkens back to his family’s rural Michigan roots, just as the scene of his childhood trauma reappears in the background before Malcolm is gunned down in Act 3.
While Malcolm used the stirring phrase “the dead are arising” to refer to Nation of Islam (NOI) recruits, Davis assigned those lyrics to a lineup of Black inmates who open Act 2, Scene 1. “Black men, wake up from your living graves,” they chant, as Malcolm’s brother Reginald (bass-baritone Michael Sumuel) visits their Massachusetts prison to convert Malcolm to a quasi-Islamic sect called the Nation of Islam (NOI).
Thulani Davis, in the foreword to her new libretto, wrote that X “today is tighter than it was in 1986… and though we used some spoken word passages to share Malcolm’s speaking style and rhythms, some of his public speaking is now sung, and the language is lifted to be more anthemic.”
Davis succeeded in orchestrating a range of other voices, from Street’s (Malcolm’s early partner in crime) to Elijah Muhammad’s, inflecting them with religiosity or streetwise vernacular. Herself a poet, Davis enriched her work by daubing it with memorable echoes of 20th-century Black literature, like “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Story author Christopher Davis pared Malcolm’s tumultuous biography down to 12 episodes, from his father’s death in Michigan in 1931 to his killing 34 years later in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Next, Davis built the drama, scene by scene, “as a “tragedy in three acts.” BMint readers will know that, apart from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, X is one of the only operas to feature scenes set in Boston (Roxbury) — and in Mecca. Malcolm goes there on a pilgrimage, prays with a multiracial group of Muslims, converts to Sunni Islam, and breaks with a corrupt Elijah Muhammad and the bigotry of NOI (today still classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center). He takes his final name: el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
Davis told BMint that the killing of Malcolm’s father, institutionalization of his mother, and dissolution of his family are “sparks that set the story on fire”…and he noted that the overriding theme of Act 1, ending with Malcolm’s aria, can be summarized as “And you wonder why he hates you?”
Most of today’s cast and audience members “weren’t even alive in 1986. “So, for us the piece needed to be forward-looking,” Davis went on to say. “With director Robert O’Hara’s Afrofuturistic take on X, the piece itself is the repository of that history, downloaded at each performance.”
Beyond the X creative team, it takes a troupe and its orchestra to pull off a spectacle of this scope and magnitude. A veteran of the Detroit Opera’s production of X last year, conductor Kazem Abdullah wielded his baton sure-handedly at the Met, despite the complexities of the score. Later this season, he will be taking to the podium when X opens at the Seattle Opera.
Much has been made of the fact that this X’s Malcolm (baritone Will Liverman) bears little physical resemblance to our indelible mental pictures of the man himself, but maybe that is the point. Malcom might have been any one of “many thousand gone” who lost a father to early violent death, got incarcerated, and ultimately found a way forward. With soaring power and the acting skills to embody his character’s metamorphoses, Liverman captures the unmistakable voice of Malcolm, his grounded strength and high seriousness.
Soprano Leah Hawkins, a standout, strikingly differentiates her dual roles as both widows: Malcolm’s mother Louise and his bereft wife Betty Shabazz. The Autobiography of Malcolm X recounts how Louise stopped singing when news of her husband’s death sank in, and she was left alone with seven fatherless children during the Depression. Hawkins rises to the challenge of losing her mind onstage, her gorgeous and sorrowful voice trailing off as one by one her children are taken away. She makes us believe her.
While X is no love story, Hawkins projects sweetness and warmth as Betty, the mother of four little girls who is pregnant with twins when her husband is killed. Unlike her real-life counterpart, however, X’s Betty and her daughters are kept mercifully offstage and out of sight during the assassination scene. Hawkins, who began the Met’s current season in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, will reprise both roles next year in the Seattle Opera’s production of X.
Tenor Victor Ryan Robertson nimbly juggled the roles of Malcolm’s mentors: two very different sly tricksters, Street and Elijah Muhammad. In another opera, such character types might have stolen the show, but X and its protagonist have a higher purpose in mind.
There is too much more to say about this spectacle, not least its revolutionary staging, costume design and choreography. O’Hara, making his Met directorial debut, somehow manages to weave in sci-fi, Afrofuturistic elements while retaining the dignity and gravitas of the subject matter.
Dede Ayite (from Ghana, as demonstrated in her mastery of traditional African dress) splendidly outfits everyone on the packed stage (itself a veritable mass movement) from enslaved and postbellum ancestors to brothers and sisters from another planet. Beyond Lindy hopping and jitterbugging, choreographer Rickey Tripp, in his Met debut, roves across the diaspora, paying homage to Brazilian capoeira, calinda (Afro-Caribbean stick-fighting), and the foundational sacred dances of mother Africa.
Operagoers witnessing X in the elegant environs of the Met will want to take it all in again on film in HD, opening soon in movie theaters. They won’t forget X’s painfully resonant episodes of random gun violence, police brutality, and tear-gassed protesters.
They won’t forget an iconoclastic moment near the close of Act 1, when the house lights come on and stay on interminably. Awkward and self-conscious, the audience is confronted by Malcolm as an angry young prisoner alone and handcuffed. He breaks the fourth wall to hector all in attendance: “My truth is white men killed my old man, drove my mother mad. My truth is fury… You want the truth, but you don’t want to know.”
In the finale, we realize that the iconic X, meant to substitute for a lost African name, may also connote a target for assassins’ bullets.
BMInt reviewed a 2022 Boston production HERE.