Malcolm X and Hamlet take over the opera stage

In 1986, novelist and critic Samuel R. Delany interviewed composer Anthony Davis, whose opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” had just received a triumphant premiere at the 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 black people have been opera-ed, have been operated, have been operationalized by white composers so there seems to be a kind of massive load going from white musicians to us as black subjects. Davis’ play seemed to augur a significant change. Andrew Porter writes in this magazine, “’X’ is a work that deserves to enter the American repertoire.

Malcolm X, a fierce critic of American myths of progress, would not have been surprised to learn that the repertoire was not quite ready for an opera about his life. Two decades passed before ‘X’ received a full revival, at the Oakland Opera Theatre; then it receded for another decade and a half. The 2020 George Floyd protests have finally prompted major corporate America to pay more attention to black songwriters. Last fall, the Metropolitan Opera presented, for the first time in its history, an African-American work: “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard. The “Champion” by the same composer is scheduled for next season. And “X” has come alive: Detroit Opera staged it in mid-May, and the Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will give a semi-stage performance in June. In future seasons, the Detroit production will travel to Lyric Opera of Chicago, Omaha Opera, Seattle Opera and, in fall 2023, the Met.

Davis, a true musical cosmopolitan, deserves attention. He was born in 1951 in Paterson, New Jersey and grew up in State College, Pennsylvania. He explored 20th century classical music alongside jazz, studying at Yale while playing gigs with artists like Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis and Gerry Hemingway. It also absorbed West African, South Indian and Indonesian practices. When he turned to opera in the 80s, he immersed himself in Wagner, Strauss and Berg. From this whirlwind of impressions emerges a heterogeneous modernist style that mixes dissonant harmony, hypnotic repetition and integrated improvisation spells.

The libretto of “X” is by playwright and critic Thulani Davis, the composer’s cousin; the story is by Christopher Davis, his brother. The authors extract a terse and lyrical account of the phases of Malcolm X’s evolution: his troubled childhood, his youth in zoot costume, his years in prison, his membership in the Nation of Islam, his break with Elijah Muhammad, his pilgrimage in Mecca and his assassination, in 1965, at the age of thirty-nine. At the same time, there is a mythic resonance in Malcolm’s momentous journey through the landscape of mid-twentieth-century black life: his quest ranges from the social to the sacred, from the political to the eternal.

The most remarkable passages in the score are those where Malcolm undergoes spiritual transformations: first his conversion to Islam, then his transcendent experience in Mecca. The gritty, jazz-influenced songwriting in the opening scenes gives way to spellbinding episodes of stasis: sustained drones, intricately overlapping rhythmic cycles, choral chants of ritual simplicity. Davis’ study of Indonesian gamelan is obvious; just like his admiration for Wagner. In conversation with Delany, Davis revealed that he was inspired by the Grail ceremonies of “Parsifal”, which he playfully called the “first minimalist opera”. The murmuring string arpeggios that appear throughout the opera evoke the shimmering prelude to “Parsifal”. The sum of these various elements is a kind of music that, as Porter observed, had never been heard before.

Robert O’Hara, who directed the staging in Detroit, further expanded the scope of the story by infusing elements of Afrofuturism into it. Clint Ramos, the set designer, installed a spaceship-like structure above the stage; projected onto it were words and images relevant to the story, including the names of black people killed by police in recent years. During the Mecca sequence, dozens of sci-fi lamps floated from the rigging. This hesitation between reality and fantasy moves away from biographical clichés and gives the opera an aura of another world.

“X” needs a gifted singer-actor in the title role, and it found one in bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who mesmerized the audience before singing a note. In Malcolm’s first scene, he impersonates a swaggering character named Street – a sly retort to Gershwin’s Sportin’ Life. Through body language alone, Tines evoked the defensive arrogance of a misplaced teenager. The sequence ends with Malcolm in prison. In the austere, smoldering monologue that follows – “I wouldn’t tell you / what I know” – Tines unleashed the expressive power of his voice, which combines precise diction with a keen sensitivity to musical phrase.

Several principals sang dual roles, in a pattern similar to the tongue-in-cheek dubs of Berg’s “Lulu”. Victor Ryan Robertson brought his brilliant, focused tenor to Street and Elijah Muhammad; Ronnita Miller showed off a richly pumped-up mezzo voice as Malcolm Ella’s sister and as Queen Mother Moore; soprano Whitney Morrison was warmly lyrical as Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, and Betty Shabazz. The characterizations of the orchestra pit were no less striking. The original production of “X” featured improvisations by members of Epistēmē, Davis’ own ensemble; in Detroit, stars of the local jazz scene ably filled these roles. A trumpet solo from Walter White brought another delightful layer to the time-suspended Mecca scene.

The opera ends abruptly. Malcolm, now known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, addresses a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. “As-Salaam Alaikum,” he said. He stands before a painted backdrop of trees and mountains – an incongruous image that hovered behind the performers throughout the evening. The music stops; shots ring out; the lights are off. Back at my hotel, I opened my computer to find that a racist white teenager had killed ten black people in Buffalo.

The same weekend that “X” opened in Detroit, the Met staged Brett Dean’s “Hamlet,” a deft take on a piece that has long defied operatic adaptation. Dean’s two-act condensing, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2017, avoids most of the obvious pitfalls of creating an opera from Shakespeare. How can a composer put the words “To be or not to be” or “The rest is silence” without sounding slightly ridiculous? Dean and his librettist, Matthew Jocelyn, refine the problem with a strategy of self-awareness. When Hamlet enters, he mutters bits and pieces of the famous phrases—“. . . or not to be”, “The rest is. . .”—while the orchestra revels in eerie effects. This “Hamlet” is aware of its “Hamlet” character, and is also aware that its audience is aware.

It’s an absorbing spectacle, but ultimately insubstantial. The dismantling of most of Hamlet’s soliloquies obscures his inner world, without which Elsinore’s bloodbath becomes meaningless. Instead of the dreamer-philosopher Hamlet, we have an angry cutup, a tragic brat. The staging, by Neil Armfield, rarely leaves the hero motionless: he walks, he slumps, he stretches fingers in the shape of rabbit ears behind Polonius’ head, he meticulously mocks the foppies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern . Allan Clayton, an eloquent tenor who will sing Peter Grimes at the Met next season, thrives on this mission: he is almost as good a singer-actor as Tines. But the banter is so relentless that I found myself sympathizing more than once with Claudius, whom Rod Gilfry embodies in seedy, charismatic style. The women, meanwhile, are reduced to a fashionable caricature: Gertrude, sung by Sarah Connolly, strikes arching poses, while Ophelia, played by Brenda Rae, goes from pitiful restlessness to orgasmic twist. Connolly’s regal tone and Rae’s nuanced passages partly redeemed these regressive conceptions.

Dean, an Australian who played viola in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra before turning to composition full-time, has full command of the orchestra. It can generate hyper complex textures, bordering on chaos, which remain cleanly engraved in the smallest details. The soundscapes of “Hamlet” are a multi-faceted marvel, incorporating abyssal electronic sounds, instrumental stations in the balconies, an onstage accordion, and all the extended techniques of the modern music textbook. The Met Orchestra, under the baton of Nicholas Carter, delivered each burst of sound with immense virtuosity. Still, I struggled to hear an individual voice – the kind that’s evident in a few bars of Davis’ “X”. I also couldn’t guess what this “Hamlet” has to say about our times. It seems to emanate from somewhere in the middle of the late 20th century.

The ending offers a release from the hustle and bustle. The orchestra’s solo voices – cello, English horn, clarinet – intone lines sighing downward over a quivering bed of sustained chords. Hamlet, collapsed in Horatio’s arms, finally manages to finish his line “The rest is silence”. It’s a beautiful, almost sentimental ending, and it ignores the parting irony of the play: Hamlet dies amid a “warlike noise,” the ruckus of Fortinbras’ oncoming army. To achieve this sound crack, we can turn to a forgotten opera “Hamlet”: a 1968 adaptation by the twelve-tone British composer Humphrey Searle, who studied with Anton Webern. Searle ends with a dissonant howling march, which could either be a reflection on what just happened or a premonition of what’s to come. This ending would have suited our moment better. ♦


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