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Malcolm X arrives — finally — at New York's Metropolitan Opera

Baritone Will Liverman stars in <em>X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X </em>at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Zenith Richards
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
Baritone Will Liverman stars in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

An opera about Malcolm X will open Friday night at New York's Metropolitan Opera — 37 years after it first premiered. The opera's creative team says although nearly four decades have passed since X first came to the stage, its messages feel more relevant than ever.

Malcolm X's life – and his assassination in 1965 at age 39 – still loom large in popular consciousness. But the creators of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X say that the opera stage is the ideal vehicle to convey both the drama of his public life – as well as his richly emotional, interior journey.

Malcolm X became an icon to many and a dangerous demagogue to others. The opera's director, Robert O'Hara, argues he was also just like everybody else.

"There's no reason why Malcolm X became a leader"

"I always say there's no reason why Malcolm X became a leader. He had a sixth-grade education," O'Hara observes. "His mother was institutionalized. His father was killed. He was a thief. He was a crook. He was a drug dealer. He was a convict, he ran around and he was a pimp. There's nothing that says, 'And he's going to be a great civil rights leader,' but he did!"

Robert O'Hara is one of the newer members of the team behind X. Mostly, it's a family affair — and a project that stretches back to the mid-1980s. (X was first performed in Philadelphia in 1985, and then a revised version had its premiere at New York City Opera in 1986.) Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis wrote the music. His brother, actor and director Christopher Davis, wrote the story. Their cousin – scholar, historian and writer Thulani Davis – wrote the libretto.

Anthony Davis says he sees Malcolm X as an archetype.

"I think he's the classic version of the tragic hero," he notes. "I mean, the idea of Malcolm going through this transformation of his life, whether signified by the name changes from Malcolm Little to Detroit Red to Malcolm X to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. So, his journey is a classic story of transformation. And then at the point at which he has the revelation about what his future direction is going to be, then he's struck down by an assassin's bullet."

Davis' music draws upon a wide range of reference points — from big band to bebop to Indonesian gamelan music to the operas of Richard Wagner.

Davis says that one through line in the opera is the music of Malcolm's own lifetime. "You could basically tell a story through the development of music from the Forties to the Sixties — let's say Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and bebop to the avant-garde jazz of the Sixties — John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner," Davis says. "So that gave a kind of musical trajectory that I could draw on in creating the score. But I also had to have musical material that travels, that moves from one section to another, and that ties the music together and can build a drama. And so I use cells of rhythmic structures the way Wagner uses leitmotifs, to build a larger form that carries that drama."

"He was always evolving and changing"

Baritone Will Liverman is playing the role of Malcolm X at the Met. He says that you hear all those gargantuan, prismatic shifts in Malcolm X's life in the music in those ever-changing rhythms.

"It's just the energy — it never settles at any point; it's always kind of in the forefront," Liverman notes. "And it really represents Malcolm's story — lots of turmoil and transformations. There is nothing that was just kind of even-keeled throughout. He was always evolving and changing."

In this scene from <em>X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X</em>, the civil rights leader performs <em>hajj</em>, a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
Marty Sohl / Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
In this scene from X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, the civil rights leader performs hajj, a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

But X is still an opera — there's time to breathe and for both the characters and the audience to metabolize their feelings. Librettist Thulani Davis says that opera allows the audience to move through the emotions of Malcolm X and his family that we don't have access to via his public persona — and not even in the pages of his famous autobiography.

"There's something in opera that we can't know necessarily from reading books about people, which is that some of the things that people do that we think about and admire later were a little terrifying to them at the time, or they didn't discuss what a big leap it was for them in public," she observes. "So there's power when you can write a poem about doubt and anxiety and put it to music — then everybody can go there because we've all experienced that."

"That's why you sing it"

Thulani Davis says the timelessness of Malcolm's story — especially his early life — is what seems to resonate especially strongly with younger audiences today. She mentions one aria that teenagers responded to at a Detroit performance last year with the bass-baritone Davone Tines singing the role of Malcolm. She says the memory of George Floyd's murder was still fresh and sharp.

"As long as I've been living, you've had your foot on me, always pressing," the aria goes.

"When he got to 'You've had your foot on me a very long time,'" Thulani Davis recalls, "I was really startled and I was like, 'Oh, my God. That's why you sing it.' It's something high school students in Detroit related to. They were the first out of their seats to give us a standing ovation. I was totally surprised."

Robert O'Hara has thought a lot about what it means to bring this particular story into the Met — and what the real Malcolm X might think about having his life portrayed at such a high temple of European art. (Anthony Davis is only the second Black composer to have his work presented by the Met; the first time was only two years ago, with Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Another Blanchard opera, Champion, was mounted in April.)

O'Hara says he had little interest in putting a straight biography of Malcolm X on stage. So he has woven a new, Afrofuturistic narrative around the story of Malcolm X's life: "A spaceship has crashed into the Met," he explains, "and a future race of people are telling the story of this icon."

The spaceship hovers above the stage, projecting real images from Malcolm X's life and other footage. At one point, the spaceship displays the names of Black victims of police brutality.

The spaceship that hovers over this production of <em>X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X</em>.
/ Marty Sohl
Marty Sohl
The spaceship that hovers over this production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

Thulani Davis says she was overwhelmed at a performance of X last year in Detroit when she saw all those names projected above the stage. It's a way of holding the past in the present, she says.

"The reason I cried so long after the first scene was that the spaceship started showing names and it was a stab in the heart — all these names from all different generations," she recalls. "It's as if somewhere somebody saved those names. You know, we historians try to keep those names alive, but it was as though society wants to forget."

"Malcolm X didn't provide comfort"

"It costs us something to basically every performance kill a Black man, which is what happens at the end," O'Hara says. "It needs to cost the audience something to see something that it shouldn't. You shouldn't be able to come to a building with an X on it and see the story of Malcolm X and expect comfort. Malcolm X didn't provide comfort. He provided truth."

Will Liverman says Malcolm provides something else right now as well. With so much polarization in people's politics and attitudes, he's been thinking about specific aspects of Malcolm X's evolution.

"He was a regular person, too. You know, he made mistakes. But I find that one of the bravest things that he could do was be courageous enough to keep changing his mind," Liverman observes. "And I find in society we are so stuck in our ways — I'm on this side, you're on that side and we can't ever listen or admit when we're wrong and say, 'Hey, there's a better way.'"

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X opens Friday at the Met and runs through early December. It will also be transmitted live to movie theaters nationwide on Nov. 18.

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Corrected: November 2, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this feature stated that the Metropolitan Opera has only presented one other opera by a Black composer previous to X. In fact, the Met has presented two operas by Terence Blanchard since 2021: Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Champion. Anthony Davis is still the second Black composer to have his work presented by the Met.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.