NEW YORK — The company premiere of Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X is a triumph for the Metropolitan Opera. Presenting it is another major stepping stone in the Met’s efforts to diversify its repertoire and increase its audience base. Both are deemed essential for the company’s future.
Perhaps more importantly, X showcases an amazing array of Black talent, which only a few years ago would have been assembled solely for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Recent productions of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Champion also did that. When change came to the Met, it happened fast, and management deserves credit for responding so urgently.
A product of the 1980s, X was a family affair, with Anthony Davis’ younger brother, Christopher Davis, devising the scenario and their cousin, Thulani Davis, writing the libretto. All three appeared on the Met’s stage after the opening-night performance on Nov. 3. Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, who died in 1997, had also been involved in the making of the opera.
After its world premiere at the New York City Opera in 1986, X pretty much went off the musical radar screen. That changed with a 2022 revival at Detroit Opera in Yuval Sharon’s first year as the company’s artistic director. Sharon’s interest was fortuitous for many reasons, one of which was Davis revisiting the score at just that time. A few nips and tucks might still be in order, as dramatic and musical interest occasionally sags at times in a performance that runs three and a half hours, including two intermissions.
X is rooted in history with the life of the human-rights activist who espoused Black pride, Black nationalism, and pan-Africanism, told in a series of vignettes. It begins in Lansing, Mich., with the birth of Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925. He later dropped his surname because it was a White slave master name. The opera ends with his murder on Feb. 21, 1965, at the age of 39 in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
The transformational events of Malcolm X’s short life are at the core of the opera. Chief among them was his introduction to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam while serving time in jail for burglary. Upon his release, Malcom X was embraced by Elijah and established temples throughout America, just as the civil rights movement was gaining national prominence in the Fifties.
Malcolm X’s comment on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, as “chickens coming home to roost” precipitated a break with Elijah. Upon Betty’s urging, a troubled Malcolm X traveled to Mecca to ask Allah for guidance. He returned to America a changed man and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity, which embraced the doctrine of universal human rights. He was heedless of the death threats he received.
The Met is presenting an enhanced version of the Detroit production by Robert O’Hara, director of Slave Play on Broadway, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 2019. In most ways, it is a fairly traditional staging, with places and people depicted with a sense of historical accuracy.
Clint Ramos‘ set suspends a large, curving structure over the stage, decorated in motifs seen in contemporaneous photographs of the Audubon Ballroom taken after Malcolm X’s murder. The curves also serve as a screen on which are projected animated designs and the names of victims of white violence, including those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. With the appearance of hanging lamps and prayer rugs, the space is instantly turned into a mosque.
A landscape of a misty mountain pass is visible through the curtains of the stage. It is perhaps a depiction of Malcolm X’s aspirational vision in which people of the world are united in faith. A troupe of dancers act as guardian angels for the young Malcolm (portrayed winningly by Bryce Christian Thompson). Throughout the opera, their movements evoke an idealized Africa before the incursion of foreigners reshaped its destiny.
This all ties into O’Hara’s over-arching theme of Afrofuturism, which incorporates science fiction, technology, and futuristic elements to examine the past, question the present, and envision an optimistic future for the Negro race. Dede Ayite runs with the movement’s sci-fi and futuristic sensibilities in her costumes for the chorus that seem to have been inspired by a mix of RuPaul’s Drag Race and sci-fi films. The futuristic specters jettison any semblance of coherency for the production, but they are fantastic.
Then again, coherency is not a hallmark of Anthony Davis’ dense, complex score. He covers a lot of stylistic musical ground to evoke the locales where the action takes place and the states of mind of the protagonists. Davis also places his longtime jazz ensemble Episteme within the orchestra, which serves to lighten the musical textures.
Most of the vocal writing is declamatory, especially the lines Davis composed for Malcolm X. There are lyrical moments, however, such as Betty’s lament, which begins “When a man is lost.” The choral writing is particularly effective, notably the chant-like swirls of sound that accompany Malcolm X’s declaration of “We are a nation.” The most effective melodies are reserved for instrumental solos, in which clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet express emotion in pure sound.
Will Liverman leads the cast as Malcolm X in an intense performance galvanized by his fine baritone and serious demeanor. His Malcolm X is eloquent and passionate when railing against societal injustice. He is at his most compelling, however, in the scene where Malcolm X goes to Mecca and experiences a personal and philosophical rebirth.
Leah Hawkins gives full voice to Betty’s hopes and fears in her lush soprano. As Elijah, tenor Victor Ryan Robertson negotiates the role’s high tessitura while suggesting the man’s complex personality and political machinations. Michael Sumuel’s fine tenor is also on display as Malcolm’s brother Reginald. Regal defines mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis’ imposing Queen Mother both vocally and dramatically.
In the pit, Kazem Abdullah paid unfailing attention to detail and balance. This is an opera in which the orchestra could easily overwhelm the singers at any given moment, but only once did that seem to be anything of an issue.
X is an opera that has found its moment and its audience. Thulani Davis could never have envisioned that the words she penned — “You have your foot on me, always pressing” — would hold such meaning in 21st-century America. Tragically, the opera ends as far too many American stories do, with the sound of bullets flying.