Throughout the season, the façade of the Metropolitan Opera House is adorned with banners. One hanging there now says “X.” It looks like the logo of the company, or platform, previously known as “Twitter.” But it stands for X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.
This is an opera by Anthony Davis, an American composer born in 1951. Some movies are “biopics”—biographical pictures, movies about a person. This opera is a bio-opera. Does it give an accurate portrait of Malcolm X? That is perhaps a subject for another article. The librettist of X is Thulani Davis, a cousin of the composer.
X had its premiere at New York City Opera almost forty years ago—in 1986. Do you remember City Opera? A highly valuable company. It staged new operas, especially American. It also staged old operas, off the beaten track. Moreover, it staged standard operas—and often did so very well.
But let us not be detained by my nostalgia . . .
According to Met publicity, Mr. Davis has revised his score for the current run. There are many in his cast, of whom I will touch on three.
In the title role is Will Liverman, the baritone. Last night, he sang as he usually does: with dignity and self-possession. The character of Malcolm does a lot of singing—about as much as any title character you can think of. The ball is usually in his hands. Liverman was Steady Eddie, unwaveringly competent.
Portraying Malcolm’s mother, Louise, was Leah Hawkins, a soprano. She sang her aria with beauty, heart, and pathos. A mezzo-soprano, Raehann Bryce-Davis, portrayed two different characters. (So did Ms. Hawkins.) She brought, among other qualities, vibrancy.
Some of the cast members were too small of voice—too small for the house and for the orchestra in the pit. All performed earnestly, however. Commitment was not lacking.
Our conductor was Kazem Abdullah, who proved an excellent manager of affairs. He was efficient, allowing no unwanted looseness in the music. He conducted with admirable clarity. A brief cello solo emerged from the pit—not so much a solo as a “lick,” if you can apply such a word to a string instrument. That lick glowed.
The production is in the care of Robert O’Hara, an American director and playwright born in 1970. It is an interesting and colorful production—very busy. (The score is busy too, often bustling.) O’Hara uses video and other devices, or techniques. As Act I is concluding, the house lights come on, gradually. (I assume that this was deliberate!) Malcolm X addresses the audience directly.
By Dede Ayite, the cast is splendidly costumed. And there is much dancing in this production—choreographed by Rickey Tripp. The Met’s X is virtually a dance show.
The best dancer in the house, surely, was sitting in the audience—Misty Copeland, of the American Ballet Theatre. A stunning woman.
Anthony Davis’s score is very American. It is eclectic, comprising tonality, atonality, jazz, and a lot more. I think of the word “pastiche.” (Not necessarily a putdown, though in some mouths, on some occasions, it is.) Davis chooses different styles for different moods or ideas. At one juncture—or perhaps more; I can’t quite recall—he lets Malcolm X speak. Not sing, but speak. Which is appropriate for such a speechifier.
There is a strong element of minimalism in this score. There is repetition—the kind that makes for a drive. A motor runs, seldom resting. The score is energetic, sometimes exhaustingly so, in my opinion.
To my sense, there are longueurs. And the opera would benefit from being shorter. But a composer has a right to his own conception.
At the end of the evening, cast members and others took their bows in a black T-shirt, with “X” on it. This seemed to me an exercise in branding. I must say, I still thought of Twitter (or the ex-Twitter, now X). In any event, everyone onstage seemed delighted with the experience.