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“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera

SO co-produced the revival of the 1986 Anthony Davis opera, revised and re-premiered in 2022 by Detroit Opera.

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Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.

SEATTLEIt’s about time that Seattle Opera got in on staging a Black-composed opera with its current co-production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

Black operas have stormed the stages in the past several years with riveting productions, a sea change in programming. Count among them Blue, The Central Park Five, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Omar and Champion, several of which we’ve seen in the Northwest. The operas have been compelling and deeply shocking, showing slices of life and pockets of terror that most of us, if we are white, never experience.

Joshua Conyers (Reginald) and Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) with members of the Ensemble in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Projection design by Yee Eun Nam. Credit: Sunny Martini.
Joshua Conyers (Reginald) and Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) with members of the Ensemble in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Projection design by Yee Eun Nam. Credit: Sunny Martini.

Now X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X is back on stage after several decades (its debut was in 1986 in New York). This revival memorializes — again — one of America’s tragic human-rights legends. Malcolm X died in 1965 at 39 years old. The music is by Anthony Davis (Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Central Park Five) with a beautiful libretto by poet-historian cousin of Anthony Davis, Thulani Davis, and a storyline by Anthony Davis’ brother, Christopher Davis. It was directed by Robert O’Hara, a playwright who directed the Detroit Opera world premiere of the revised and revived opera.

In the midst of Black Lives Matter momentum and George Floyd’s death, the revival was inspired by Detroit Opera’s risk-taking young artistic director Yuval Sharon and co-produced by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Omaha and Seattle Opera. SO’s General Director Christina Scheppelmann agreed it was time for the revival and staged it for six performances Feb. 24 through March 9 at the 2,900-seat McCaw Hall (the March 9 performance is on its way to selling out). The March 3 show that I attended was packed with an enthusiastic audience, much of it Black. X has already surpassed last year’s A Thousand Splendid Suns as the contemporary opera with the most single tickets sold in company history, SO’s Joshua Galley said.

Rex Walker (Young Malcolm, Feb. 24, Mar. 3 & 9) surrounded by dancers and Ensemble members from "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.
Rex Walker (Young Malcolm, Feb. 24, Mar. 3 & 9) surrounded by dancers and Ensemble members from “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.

Though I didn’t see the 1986 opera, which attracted big audiences in New York, bets are this revival is far better, though the bones remained the same. For one, the 1986 production had no dancers, which added a dimension and served to reflect the change of tone during significant periods in Malcolm X’s life. Choreographed by Rickey Tripp and performed by excellent movers, all men (Corde Young, Jay Staten, Christopher Jackson, Mikhail Calliste and Dorse Brown), dance enhanced the show and gave the opera an otherworldly vibe, eliminating the sense of straight biography.

Nor did the1986 opera have Clint Ramos’ futuristic scenery, such as the ringed planet formation or “spaceship” that swirled at times above the stage with names of Black people who have died tragically and were killed by police or assassins, including Treyvon Martin, George Floyd, and earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the Mecca sequence, lamps dripped down from the ceiling, creating a mysterious scene when Malcolm learns to pray with other devouts and to truly embrace Islam. That scene was the opera’s most visually striking.

Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, standing) with members of the Ensemble for "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Credit: Philip Newton.
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, standing) with members of the Ensemble for “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Philip Newton.

Music riddle

Perhaps, most importantly, in 1986, the audience wasn’t ready for Davis’ eclectic music, a new language for opera. It’s interesting to glance back at the New York Times 1986 review:

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Both Mr. Davis and the production’s stage director, Rhoda Levine, have approached ‘X’ primarily as incantatory theater: every musical idea is stated over and over, as is every staging idea. Mr. Davis’s score is an amalgam of contemporary atonality, repetitive chant and what sounded to these untutored ears like modern jazz. Except for the jazzy outbreaks, such as the lively Harlem interlude of Act II, vocalism generally alternates in style between monotonous chanting and the kind of spiky, keyless line that no human voice outside contemporary opera has been known to sing. Not for the first time at the City Opera, a libretto’s English words were projected in supertitles. That was especially fortunate this time, because Mr. Davis and his collaborators want to give words and ideology, not vocalism, the center of attention in this work. The musical interest, in fact, is chiefly rhythmical. The composer’s intent apparently is to create and sustain a hypnotic state similar to the effect achieved by powerful public speakers such as Malcolm X himself.” 

Perhaps this was a misunderstanding of the nature of the music, or maybe I’m more tuned into Davis’ composing 40 years later. And Davis did revise the music for the revival. Davis was 35 at the time of the 1986 piece. He was experimenting with everything from jazz to African to Indonesian gamelan music as well as soaking up Wagner, Strauss and Berg. New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote in June 2022, when the new production opened in Detroit: “What emerges from this swirl of impressions is a heterogeneous modernist style that mixes dissonant harmony with hypnotic repetition and integrated spells of improvisation.”

That comes much closer to the music’s intent, though I agree, it was repetitive as opera music often is to emphasize its themes and characters’ parts. The orchestra included a jazz ensemble with three woodwind players who doubled on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax, along with flute and bass clarinet. Strings, more winds, trumpets, trombones, timpani and a celeste filled out the orchestra directed by Kazem Abdullah, who conducted the Detroit and Met’s productions, as well as The Central Park Five in Portland and Fire Shut up in My Bones at the Met. Abdullah has a grip on American music that combines many influences. 

Kazem Abdullah conducts members of the Seattle Symphony in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.
Kazem Abdullah conducts members of the Seattle Symphony in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.

The chorus (called an ensemble in the program), which was often on stage in different forms playing different characters, was as much a presence as the main characters. Because the plot proceeded in a fairly linear manner from Malcolm Little’s childhood (little Malcolm was sung and gracefully danced by Rex Walker) to Malcolm X’s assassination in New York (sung by baritone Kenneth Kellogg), the plot was easy to follow, if X’s lonely and fraught life was tough to watch unfold. Later, after his visit to Mecca, he took the name Malik el Shabaaz, though the Malcolm X name has stuck. 

Before X goes to prison, in his street-life peacock-colored zoot-suit stage, he breaks the fourth wall (the imaginary space between audience and actor) and speaks directly to the audience, implicating them in the rigged and racist justice system. “I’ve shined your shoes. / I’ve sold your dope, / hauled your bootleg, / played with hustler’s hope. / But the crime is mine / I will do your time, / so you can sleep. / I won’t be out to get you / on the street at night / but I won’t forget / any evil that’s white.” 

Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Sunny Martini.

The house lights went up to underscore that address, but it was subtle and unexpected, and I doubt a lot of people caught the meaning. Still, we are all implicated in Black pain.

Singers double up

Most of the singers played several roles in this three-hour opera, sung in English, of course. The street-smart Street (a sly take on Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess) and “Allah messenger” Elijah, two very different characters, were sung by the versatile tenor Joshua Stewart. Soprano Leah Hawkins doubled in the roles of Louise, the young Malcolm’s distraught mother, and Betty, Malcolm’s no-nonsense wife. Grammy-nominated mezzo Ronnita Miller sang Ella and the Queen Mother. The women out-sang the men, though in Islam, women stay out of the limelight. Several audience members at post-opera talk-back complained of not hearing the men well. 

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Leah Hawkins (Betty Shabazz) and Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera. Credit: Philip Newton.
Leah Hawkins (Betty Shabazz) and Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Philip Newton.

To be fair, the Malcolm role is huge. Powerful and charismatic bass-baritone Davone Tines performed the part in Detroit in 2022 and blew the audience away. Grammy award-winning baritone Will Liverman sang the part in New York. Kellogg’s Malcolm portrayal had heft, dignity and stature, but he is no Davone Tines or Will Liverman.

The few white roles (social worker, photographer, cop, reporter) were small and unremarkable. This was utterly a Black opera, and the only roles that whites had were as “devils,” abusers and oppressors. 

So much of this opera and Malcolm X’s efforts were aimed at making Black men and families strong and proud. Some of his philosophy was separatist; he did not believe in integration. He wanted self-determination for Blacks, justice and equality. He wanted Black men to “wake up.” He was angry, though measured in his temper, at least in the opera: “They called me nigger so much I thought it was my name,” he sings. He was a dynamic speaker though few of his speeches were captured in this opera. 

The opera ends abruptly when he was shot while onstage at the Audubon Ballroom in New York’s Washington Heights. The gunshot freezes X in time and the curtain falls. The Audubon’s red-curtained stage is a scenery fixture throughout, reminding us of his tragic death and powerful words, but it may well have served as a visual metaphor for seeing that his life set the stage for others to do tough human rights work. 

Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Seattle Opera. Credit: Philip Newton.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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