Anthony Davis’ “X” At Seattle Opera


Seattle Opera’s presentation of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which opened Saturday and runs through March 9, made an excellent case for what ought to be a touchstone of modern American opera. 

Anthony Davis’ score, written in collaboration with librettist Thulani Davis and based on a scenario by Christopher Davis (the former his sister, the latter his cousin), received its official premiere at New York City Opera in 1985 to great acclaim. A recording was made several years later but the opera was eclipsed by Davis’ later work, especially Amistad (1997) and The Central Park Five, (2019, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.) 

However, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter social movement and heightened national awareness of these still-simmering issues, “X” seemed ripe for a new production. It helped that Davis decided to revisit the score during Covid, reorchestrating and making judicious cuts, and it is this revised version (a co-production with Seattle Opera, the Met, Detroit Opera, Opera Omaha, and Lyric Opera of Chicago) that is being given at McCaw Hall.

The story focuses on signal events in the life of Malcolm X, from his childhood through hustling youth, his embrace of the Nation of Islam, and subsequent rise as a provocative civil rights advocate. The current production was originally conceived by director Robert O’Hara and set designer Clint Ramos as an “afro-futurist” take on the tale – a time-capsule story playing for visitors from a post-apocalyptic future. Apart from the excellent set, this framing device (used at the Met last November) seems to have been abandoned. 

Events unfold on a raked stage before a small, mobile proscenium arch: a miniature of the Audubon Ballroom stage where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Ruined brick buildings and rubble surround the stage, and a hovering gyre-shaped object dominates the action. Lee Eun Nam’s finely wrought projections, which flow across its surface, provide invaluable historical context for the story. It is a rare bit of luck to have scenic design so strong: the wrecked spaceship from the Met production repurposed as a whirlwind of memory and image. Dede Ayite’s costumes provide stylish clues to different places in time, be it the knickers of Lansing, the Zoot suits of Boston, the Ihram tunics of Mecca, or the two-button suits of Manhattan.   

As an African-American composer with a reputation as an outstanding jazz musician, Davis has pushed back against characterizations of “X” as a “jazz opera.” While Davis deploys jazz techniques and sequences within the score of “X,” a jazz opera it is not. 

Davis grew up in the world of classical music and cites Alban Berg as a major influence (the first opera he attended was Berg’s Wozzeck.) Indeed, “X” takes obvious inspiration, both in its scenic construction and its harmonic language, from that masterpiece. Another key to understanding the sound world of “X” is Davis’ use of repeated polyrhythmic sequences, inspired by his study of Carnatic ragas and gamelan traditions. 

To ears used to cycles of three or four beats, these lengthy rhythmic patterns can seem wayward and disconcerting. But the persistence and variety of this compositional device – sometimes over a long pedal, sometimes through a capella ensembles, sometimes with lacerating percussive violence – unifies the opera, and gives it a distinctive voice.

When Davis uses jazz overtly, the decadence of Boston nightlife comes to life in a deliciously upholstered homage to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Elsewhere, riffs occasionally spark from the orchestra pit, but most of the leitmotifs and harmonies I heard seemed redolent of Ives and Berg. The orchestra realized the score admirably under the direction of Kazem Abdullah. 

Another highlight of the production is the inclusion of four dancers, spirits that haunt the main characters. Threading their way through the action, Jay Staten, Dorse Brown, Christopher Jackson, and Cordé Young gave outward expression to inner turmoil. They broke their silence later in the evening, writhing under the brutal treatment of unseen police.

Kenneth Kellogg, a bass familiar from recent Seattle Opera productions (Don Giovanni, (2021,  and Blue, 2022) made a convincing-looking Malcolm X, and for the most part commanded the stage with his dark, resonant voice. The part demands the extension of a baritone, and these moments taxed his upper range. Malcolm X himself was famously cool and charismatic, a tall order for any actor, and Kellogg had mixed success putting this over. Sometimes he seemed non-plussed by the events buffeting him, other times his incantatory rhetoric soared and inspired. His portrayal is likely to deepen as the run continues.

Joshua Stewart, a tenor also familiar to local audiences from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (2020) and Blue drew broader characterizations from more flamboyant characters, portraying both Sweet, young Malcolm’s Sportin’ Life-esque guide to after-hours life in Boston, and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Stewart sounded uncomfortable navigating some of Sweet’s cruel tessitura but settled in over the course of the evening, creating in Elijah a convincing mentor turned critic.  

Also dividing her time was the excellent soprano Leah Hawkins, portraying both Malcolm X’s mother Louise and his wife Betty. It is through these characters that Thulani Davis’ outstanding poetry is shown to greatest effect. “Betty’s Aria,” superbly set by the composer and realized by Hawkins, is a poignant example. “When a man is lost,” she sings, “does the sky bleed for him, or does the sunset ignore his tears?”  

Other standouts include mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, portraying Malcolm’s well-meaning older half-sister Ella, who cares for the boy in Boston following his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent hospitalization. Treble Rex Walker gave a moving account of young Malcolm’s grief and bewilderment when his parents were taken from him. Baritone Joshua Conyers’ sympathetic depiction of Malcolm’s younger brother Reginald laid the groundwork for his fateful introduction to Elijah Muhammad. 

A twelve-singer ensemble met some of Davis’ most ambitious musical demands: namely polyrhthmic, quasi-tonal sequences that must have required long hours to master, and balanced clarity in densely written chordal episodes. With a lion’s share of stage time the ensemble constituted a principal character – a palpable community.

James C. Whitson
James C. Whitson
James Whitson is a retired architect who writes about opera for "Opera News" and "Encore."



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