‘X’ At Last Marks Spot For Anthony Davis In World Of Modern Opera

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Composer Anthony Davis, center, with conductor Thomas Wilkins, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra after a March 2023 performance of Davis’ ‘You Have the Right to Remain Silent.’ (Photo by Winslow Townson)

EVANSTON, Ill. — When the New York City Opera officially premiered Anthony Davis’ first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, in 1986, the composer garnered considerable attention, and his career appeared poised for a big take-off.

But things quickly stalled. X was not revived in the immediate decades that followed. Though he continued to write more operas, including Amistad, which debuted at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997, Davis’ career did not live up to the initial burst of adulation.

Then, everything suddenly changed, starting in 2020. His latest opera, The Central Park Five, won him a long-overdue Pulitzer Prize for Music, still the ultimate honor for composers. And in November 2023, a revised version of X made it to the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a production that served as a huge vindication.

It took nearly four decades, but Davis, now 72, has arrived at last. “It’s been a big, major change,” he said. “It’s great to finally see the recognition and also to have the opportunities to do new pieces.”

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of Davis’ ‘X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X‘ in November 2023 (Photo by Marty Wohl)

Just as important, his groundbreaking efforts to bring an African-American voice to opera have led to a new group of such talents, starting with famed jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. His Fire Shut Up in My Bones in 2021 became the first work by a Black composer to be performed in the Met’s 138-year history (and on the season’s opening night, no less).

Other African-American creators who have followed in Davis’ operatic footsteps include Damien Geter (American Apollo) and Joel Thompson (The Snowy Day). “That’s exciting to me,” Davis said, “because I think music from the African-American perspective has a real future, transforming opera and making it into a uniquely American form.”

In addition to a soon-to-premiere children’s opera, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, which deals with immigration and America’s southern border, the composer’s latest project to approach fruition is a musical, Shimmer. It will be seen on Jan. 25 and 28 in workshop presentations at Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center for Performing and Media Arts in Evanston, Ill. — informal performances that will allow him to examine the work’s musical flow and make any final alterations to the order of the songs. “I’m sure there will be changes,” he said.  

Shimmer features lyrics by Michael Korie, who collaborated on the Broadway productions of War Paint and Grey Gardens. The musical is based on Sarah Schulman’s 1998 novel of the same title. A multifaceted writer and AIDS historian, she serves as the Ralla Klepak Professor of English at Northwestern.

Set in 1947 with the specter of McCarthyism hanging over everything, the musical focuses on a couple of young people — Sylvia, a Jewish woman from Brooklyn, and Cal, a Black man from Harlem. As the two try to pursue the American dream, they face societal hurdles based on their race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Anthony Davis

Shimmer draws on the music of the late 1940s and early ‘50s that Davis’ parents loved — the end of the Big-Band era and the beginning of rhythm and blues — and looks back to such notable artists as Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, and Charles Mingus. “It was fun for me to revisit that period and imagine music that tells this story,” Davis said. In addition, Shimmer reflects the important influence of Sweeney Todd and other musicals by Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021.  

Although Davis once partly penned a musical based on the life of Elvis Presley, this work is his first in the form to reach completion. “I’ve never accepted being bounded by what I’ve done before,” he said. “I try to keep growing as an artist and keep trying to do new things and not be bounded by a category. Duke Ellington is a great role model for that, because he always talked about artists being ‘beyond category.’”

There is as yet no scheduled premiere for Shimmer. “We’re hopeful that producers will pick up on it from the workshop,” the composer said.

Davis has written a range of instrumental and vocal works, but he is best known for his eight staged operas. The Paterson, N.J., native first became enamored with the idea of opera in 10th grade after reading such philosophical tracts as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. He wrote an essay about the potential of a brand of American opera that fused the form’s roots with musical expressions of the African diaspora — which he would go on to create.

He later studied at Yale University, where a class focused on Richard Wagner exerted a major influence, especially the 19th-century composer’s use of leitmotifs and his ability to build a coherent large-scale narrative structure. One difference in Davis’ operas is that he sometimes uses recurring rhythmic, rather than melodic, patterns as leitmotifs. In X, listeners first hear a 25-beat pattern when Malcolm’s mother is killed, and that rhythmic combination returns at pivotal times in the opera. “I always think about the music driving action,” he said, “and finding ways in which I can use ostinatos and rhythmic structures as a way of also illuminating structure within the opera.” 

Mark S. Doss as Cinque in the world-premiere production of Davis’ ‘Amistad’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. (Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Davis graduated from Yale in 1975 and completed X 10 years later. The impetus for the work came from Mary MacArthur, then-director of the New York avant-garde performance space The Kitchen. She was encouraging commissions of new operas at the time and approached Davis to ask if he had a possible subject for such an undertaking. His ready answer was the life of Malcolm X, the famed if controversial civil rights leader. “I was able to combine my interest in the political realm with my music, with my artistic interests,” Davis said. “Opera became for me a way to express what I was thinking about outside of music.” All of his operas since then have revolved around some kind of a social, political, or historical theme, such as a slave mutiny on a ship in Amistad (1997) or a contemporary Ponca boy’s spiritual connection to the revered 19th-century chief Standing Bear in Wakonda’s Dream (2007).

After the informal debut of X at the American Music Theater Festival and later the New York City Opera, the work largely dropped out of view. In part, Davis said, the lack of interest was due to its large scale and its need for an all-African American cast. “There was worry as well about the politics, because it is a very strong political work,” he said. “It wasn’t the time for it.”

Although the work was performed at the Oakland Opera Theater in 2006, its first major revival came in 2022 at the Detroit Opera in a revised version under the direction of Robert O’Hara. That production, with further changes, was seen at the Met, and it is set for performances at the Seattle Opera in February and March and a subsequent appearance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“It shouldn’t be taken for granted that a score with instructions like ‘Bitches Brew Miles!’ should be at the Met,” wrote Joshua Barone in the New York Times. “This was unfathomable only a few years ago. Just as history moves quickly in X, so, too, is it beginning to in opera . . . And, with performances planned long after the run in New York, it has the opportunity to become what it always should have been: an American classic.”      

The opera had seemingly been a bit ahead of its time, but after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it found a renewed relevance. In addition, the merger of traditional operatic elements with jazz and swing in X no longer seemed such an artistic reach.

“I’m generally an optimist,” the composer said. “That’s what keeps you going through those periods. I felt that it would find its time and place.”