Opera on Malcolm X -- a stunning success

At a time when most American opera houses are more like warehouses of the past than guideposts to the present or future, a new work composed by Anthony Davis has blazed onto the stage of New York City Opera -- after a series of workshop productions elsewhere -- with an urgency and immediacy that are little short of explosive. ``X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X)'' is a stunning achievement.

It functions splendidly as both music and drama -- and places Davis firmly in the rank of responsible American composers (such as Philip Glass in ``Satyagraha'' and Steve Reich in ``The Desert Music,'' among others) who conceive their work in moral as well as musical terms.

If the opera has a persistent flaw, it's that the libretto portrays black human-rights leader Malcolm X in terms that are too broadly heroic, celebrating his life but not attempting to answer his critics or settle the controversies that surrounded his career.

Given the subtitle of the work, however, this seems permissible and perhaps appropriate.

``X'' is the portrait of a period as well as a personality, and Malcolm was indeed a hero for many (including whites as well as his fellow blacks) during the troubled time around 1960.

To reflect this through the opera's narrative was a legitimate choice for librettist Thulani Davis and her collaborator on the story, Christopher Davis -- both of whom, incidentally, are relatives of the composer.

Anthony Davis is best known for the complex, aggressively modernistic jazz he has written and played with Episteme, his 10-piece ensemble.

The eclectic score of ``X'' reflects his jazz roots, especially in scenes of street life that have a strongly colloquial flavor.

Davis's brand of musical fusion soars far beyond mixing jazz and operatic idioms, however; it draws easily and confidently on African, pop-music, and improvisational elements, as well.

All these threads are woven into a seamless tapestry that heightens the meanings and feelings of every scene -- a display of virtuoso composition that I found especially dazzling in light of my lukewarm response to much of Davis's past work.

``X'' is not a sugary or even a friendly score much of the time, showing more kinship with atonality than with the neo-romantic and minimalist styles that have swayed many of today's younger composers.

But the directness of its emotions and the vividness of its textures make it accessible and memorable from start to finish, even on a first hearing.

The libretto, as ambitious as the score, traces most of Malcolm's life.

It begins with his childhood in the Midwest -- he was named Malcolm Little then -- and shows his mother's descent into madness after experiencing bouts of Ku Klux Klan terror and the death of her husband, who may have been murdered by whites.

Malcolm is taken in by a kindly half-sister, becomes a streetwise hustler and petty crook in Boston, and lands in prison. There his brother visits, urging Malcolm to join the Black Muslim religion that has changed his own life.

Malcolm does so, takes the name Malcolm X in place of the ``slave name'' he previously bore, and becomes an important Muslim speaker after leaving jail.

His star seems permanently on the rise until a dramatic event in 1963, when he publicly describes the assassination of John F. Kennedy as an example of America's ``climate of violence'' coming home to roost.

Fearful of angering the white community, Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad chastises and silences his lieutenant.

Sad and upset, Malcolm makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he finds people of different races dwelling and praying together in a harmony that inspires him infinitely more than anything in Elijah Muhammad's vision. Transforming himself again, he takes the proudly Muslim name of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and returns to the United States.

Here he preaches his own concept of black dignity -- until he is gunned down, in a riveting final tableau, as he prepares to deliver an address in Harlem.

Aside from its historical meaning, this is a gripping story, and it makes for fiercely compelling theater as staged by Rhoda Levine, who is credited with devising, directing, and choreographing the production.

Scenes flow across the stage with ever-building momentum under Ms. Levine's guidance, maintaining a sense of relentless naturalism even when tempered by stylized touches, such as when jail cells are evoked by slatted chair-backs with men crouching helplessly behind them.

The cast, nearly all of which is new to City Opera, lives spendidly up to the material. Ben Holt, who resembles photographs of Malcolm X, brings consistent musical and dramatic excellence to the title role.

Thomas Young, a wonderfully bright-voiced tenor, lights up the stage in two key roles that stand in ironic counterpoint to each other: Elijah Muhammad and, earlier in the story, a rascally hustler named Street who puts Malcolm on his first mistaken path as an adult.

Other standouts in the strong cast include Priscilla Baskerville as Malcolm's mother, who delivers a haunting aria on the subject of black fear and misery; Marietta Simpson as Malcolm's half-sister, whose warm spirit finds expression in some of the opera's most sprightly and jazzy music; and young Armond Pressley, who gives the opera a brief but touching moment as Malcolm during his childhood years.

The premi`ere of ``X'' was conducted by City Opera musical director Christopher Keene, a versatile artist who kept the opera's many moods and textures deftly balanced on opening night.

It will be performed three more times in the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, the last being Oct. 14, and can be expected to return in future seasons if the first-night audience's enthusiasm is any guide to its popularity.

Meanwhile, if there's a spark of life in today's overall opera scene, other companies should start scrambling to add it to their repertoires, too. ``X'' is one of the year's signal artistic achievements.

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