More than thirty-six years after its world premiere at New York City Opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X finally made the short trip across Lincoln Center Plaza not long ago to the Metropolitan Opera in a dazzling, dizzying Afrofuturist production directed by Robert O’Hara. Though Will Liverman’s calmly earnest portrayal emerged as too small-scaled for the work’s electrifying subject, the Met’s enthusiastic embrace of X will do much to further its 21st-century renaissance.
Recently revised by composer Anthony Davis, the three-act opera to a libretto by his cousin Thulani Davis based on a story by his brother Christopher Davis takes us through more than thirty years of Malcolm’s life, from his father’s death when the boy was just six years old to his 1965 assassination in Upper Manhattan. We follow the traumatic separation from his grieving mother to his committing crimes that inevitably result in incarceration.
While he’s in prison Malcolm’s brother introduces him to the teachings of the Nation of Islam whose leader Elijah Muhammad embraces the young convert, guiding him to a powerful ministry. His rise is hobbled by a backlash over indelicate remarks following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and his murder follows a break from Elijah and the Nation of Islam.
Rather than focusing on interactive encounters, many of X’s scenes are static tableaux during which characters reflect on life-changing events directly to the audience. In the opening scene, Malcolm’s mother Louise frets anxiously about her dire situation, then Ella, his half-sister, follows with another extended monologue as she takes the boy to live with her in Boston where he meets Street, who steers him toward criminal pursuits.
O’Hara attempts to compensate for the lack of dramatic action by introducing dancers executing Rickey Tripp’s frenetic choreography, while Yee Eun Nam’s kaleidoscopic projections glide by on Clint Ramos’s enormous flying saucer hovering over the action.
Liverman’s Malcolm began promisingly with a powerful aria about his cursed situation.
As the evening progressed, Malcolm’s evolution found the baritone turning increasingly inward, his words became less clear and the dynamism seen in clips of the real Malcolm was lacking. In addition, when Malcolm’s preaching should be electrifying, the chorus diluted it by repeatedly thrusting placards into the air.
Liverman excelled when Davis’s writing took him into his high register, but unfortunately, much of Malcolm’s music sent him uncomfortably low. His recessive stance often allowed others to dominate. Michael Sumuel displayed a biting, house-filling bass-baritone as Malcolm’s brother Ronald, while Victor Ryan Robertson’s eerily high tenor stole the show twice in his tour-de-force doubling of Street and Elijah.
Leah Hawkins brought her big, lush soprano to the role of Malcolm’s mother, as well as that of wife Betty, whose mighty importance to him is scarcely seen in the opera. Their all-too-brief husband/wife duet ending the second act felt oddly truncated as did the moment she sends Malcolm off on his revelatory trip to Mecca.
Raehann Bryce-Davis used her warm and wide-ranging mezzo to bring Ella and Queen Mother to all-too-brief life.
While both women were grandly audible, too frequently conductor Kazem Abdullah allowed his sizzling orchestra to cover the other singers. Though Davis’s writing for solo and choral voices can become blandly incantatory, his orchestra always teems with vibrancy thanks to the bravura playing of Episteme, an eight-piece jazz ensemble including saxophones, piano, bass and drums, that was embedded into the Met orchestra. Balance issues may resolve themselves as the run through December 2 continues.
Because it is preoccupied with the many stages in his long transformation from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X and finally into el-Hajj Malik e-Shabazz, the opera pays scant attention to the period of his greatest influence—and controversy. Perhaps its creator’s intention is to send audiences to Malcolm’s seminal Autobiography, an enormously influential, posthumously published collaboration with Alex Haley.
X coincidentally arrived the same day that Rustin, George C. Wolfe’s fine new biopic about Bayard Rustin, gay African-American architect of the 1963 March on Washington, opened in theaters. The news media will surely be filled with remembrances of the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd, but during X at the Met and a preview screening of Rustin I was grateful to again be reminded of others brutally murdered during the roiling mid-1960s: besides Malcolm and John Kennedy, assassins also struck down Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. (both men are portrayed in Rustin) and Robert Kennedy.
Both X and Rustin will soon reach wider audiences. In addition to being beamed to theaters worldwide in HD on November 18, O’Hara’s potent production of X will next travel to Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Seattle Opera, and the day before that, Rustin premieres on Netflix. These strong artworks demand that audiences reflect on the past’s bloody sacrifices and encourage the acknowledgment that much more remains to be done.