Review: After 36 years, a Malcolm X opera sings to the future
DETROIT — “When a man is lost,” sings Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, “does the sky bleed for him, or does the sunset ignore his tears?”
The beginning of a smoldering aria, these words are perhaps the most poetic and poignant in Anthony Davis’ opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” All the more poignant since, for several decades, “X”, too, was ignored.
The work, with a libretto by Thulani Davis, the composer’s cousin, from a story by his brother, Christopher Davis, premiered in the mid-1980s, first in Philadelphia and, officially, in New York City. Opera. And then… mostly silence.
For 36 years, we talk about it more than we hear. (An excellent studio recording from 1992 is now out of print.) And it was obvious, at the opening of a new production Saturday at the Detroit Opera House, what “X” stands to gain from being caught live: its footage of incantation turn into something like a sacred rite.
In these passages, on carpets of complex and repetitive rhythms in the orchestra, the ensemble sings short lines – “Africa for Africans”, “Betrayal is on his lips”, “Freedom, justice, equality” – again and again, building and overlapping. Opera is at its best in these long stretches of music between intensity and immobility. Without copying the prayer practices of Malcolm’s Muslim faith, the work evokes them.
Bringing “X” back to the stage is a bang for the Detroit Opera, which recently rebranded itself after 50 years as the Michigan Opera Theater, ushering in a new era under the artistic direction of Yuval Sharon.
Sharon rose to prominence as the founder of experimental Los Angeles company The Industry, and he quickly brought ambitious and inventive programming to Detroit, such as a “Götterdämmerung” in a parking lot and a “La Bohème” whose four acts are played backwards. . The estate is noticing what it’s up to: As part of a widespread effort to belatedly showcase more works by black composers and librettists, this “X” will travel to the Metropolitan Opera (in fall 2023), Lyric Chicago Opera, Omaha Opera and Seattle Opera.
In biopic style, the booklet sketches the outline of a short but eventful life: the murder of Malcolm’s father when Malcolm was a boy in Lansing, Michigan; his mother’s mental breakdown; his move to live with his half-sister in Boston, where he falls into a fast-moving mob and ends up in jail; his conversion in prison to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam; the success of his black nationalist ministry; his split with Muhammad over tactics; his pilgrimage to Mecca; and glimmers of a more universalist ideology of peace and racial unity, which he barely had the opportunity to expound before his assassination in 1965, aged just 39.
All this is translated into the exacerbated register of the opera. Even the dialogue is pithy and exalted: “I come from a desert of pain and remorse. The music is varied and ingenious; Davis won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for his most recent opera, “The Central Park Five,” but “X” is a deeper score.
It begins in a gloomy and dark atmosphere, the moments of anxiety flirting with blues and subtle swing. Sensitively guided by conductor Kazem Abdullah, the music moves from hard-hitting modernism to lyrical lushness, from peaceful worship to nervous energy and stentorian force.
An essay in the program describes how Davis’ original contract specified that “the word ‘jazz’ should not be used in connection with this piece”, although an innovation here was to incorporate an improvisational ensemble within of a traditional orchestra. It works smoothly, as when a saxophone aptly depicts Malcolm’s new life in the big city of Boston, or when a whining, nostalgic trumpet accompanies prayer in Mecca. The prisoners’ dirge is warmed by creaks of brass, smoking below; along with Betty’s enigmatically tender aria, it is the opera’s most intriguing music.
The new production, directed by Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play”), has a unit directed, by Clint Ramos, which evokes the partly crumbling Audubon ballroom in Harlem, where Malcolm was killed. (The mountain pass mural painted on the back wall of the ballroom stage depicts an idyll that almost seems to taunt the characters from the opera.)
Above hover large, swooping curves, used as a projection screen for textures, cartoons, and a scrolling list of names of victims of white violence, before and after Malcolm. The staging is inspired by Afrofuturism, the attempt to devise new, often fanciful, sometimes heavenly circumstances for a people suffering from crushing oppression.
“Imagine a world where Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line is a spaceship,” O’Hara writes in a program note, referring to the “Back to Africa” movement that Malcolm’s parents participated in. But it’s when the curves take on the literal flashing lights of such a ship that things get a little laughable, evoking the ship in “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” more than lofty dreams of escape and overhaul.
More effective is the introduction of four male dancers – their meandering choreography by Rickey Tripp – who meander through the production, sometimes like guardian angels watching over Young Malcolm (Charles Dennis), sometimes like meandering punctuation of the scenes. The reserve flexibility that O’Hara introduces works most often, even if the libretto’s specificity of place and situation is sacrificed in this more abstract view. Malcolm’s basic progress is still clear – minus the specifics of where he is and who, exactly, he’s talking to. The result, not unpleasant, is more a dream ballet than CNN.
Malcolm, however, still wears his distinctive browline glasses. It’s played here with superb control by bass-baritone Davóne Tines, steady, calm and engaged in both his physical presence and grounded voice, with a fiery core bubbling in his lead tune, “I wouldn’t tell you What I Know,” at the end of Act I.
As Malcolm’s mother and wife, soprano Whitney Morrison sings with gentle strength. Charming as Street, who amazes Malcolm in Boston, tenor Victor Ryan Robertson largely handles the muscular lines of Elijah Muhammad but strives to transmit his magnetism.
“X” sometimes hypnotizes but sometimes sags. Like Philip Glass’s ‘Satyagraha’, about Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, the opera is conceived as an ever-progressing account of the ideological evolution of a historical figure, without traditional dramatic tension. The main human conflict, between Malcolm and Elijah, is only lightly touched upon; that’s not the plot.
“Satyagraha”, however, fully indulges in stylization, its Sanskrit text detached from the action, its scenes like spectacle. The music and libretto of “X”, on the other hand, continue to promise crackling drama without quite delivering; there can be a sense of falling between the stools of trance repetition and standard storytelling.
Scattered throughout are interludes that sound like vamping musically and offer little obvious pretext for action. After so many years, the creators seem to have seen the need to do something with these stretches – “We added some vocal lines in places that were musical interludes”, writes Thulani Davis in the program – but they remain, and sap energy.
Yet ‘X’, for all his obvious admiration for his subject, resists sentimentality or melodrama admirably, especially avoiding an operatic death scene: at the end, Malcolm steps onto the ballroom podium. Audubon and briefly greets his audience in Arabic. Then there is a blackout as gunshots ring out.
For all the talk of spaceships and a better future, this is an inevitably stark conclusion. There will always be gifted and visionary boys and men, the work in this new staging seems to say, but their future is hardly assured.
X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X
Through May 22 at the Detroit Opera House; detroitopera.org.