Before Spike's Film, There Was Anthony Davis's Opera

SPIKE LEE's new movie about Malcolm X may be opening with fanfare around the country, but the music was here first. On the sidelines of "X-mania" is Anthony Davis's three-act opera, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X," first performed in 1986 and released in August on compact disc by Gramavision.

While Gramavision admits that Lee's movie gives the recording an indirect plug, studio work actually began in 1989, involving many of the original cast members.

Mr. Davis's opera successfully frames a fiercely modern tale with traditional operatic form and honestly can be called the first opera written by and about African-Americans to receive mainstream endorsement. Davis's brother, Christopher, devised the story, while their cousin, Thulani Davis, wrote the libretto.

Officially debuting six years ago under the aegis of Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera, the work was described by The New Yorker as bringing "new life to America's conservative operatic scene, being a work at once genuinely new, musically and theatrically effective...."

Though peppered with jazz, "X" is still very much a classical or "serious" opera and a remarkable first opera for Davis, trained classically at Yale but known for his strong ties to the jazz vanguard.

Davis chose to write an opera because that's what he felt most comfortable with, he told me recently. The story of Malcolm X has an epic quality, he says, entailing a personal journey and transformation. "That lends itself to the form of opera." Davis is a visiting professor of music and Afro-American studies at Harvard University.

Fundamentally a tragedy, "X" begins and ends with death - first the brutal killing of his father by white supremacists during Malcolm's childhood, and finally his own assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. The music throughout is dark and agitated, expressed in dissonance bordering on atonality and complex, syncopated meters. Keeping within the conventions of operatic form, Davis skillfully incorporates walking bass lines, improvisation, and drums that set wonderful swing and funk-flavored rhythms in mo tion.

The plot focuses on Malcolm X's struggle with his own sense of identity, omitting or skimming over some of the more controversial aspects of his life, such as his anti-Semitism and his appeals to militancy.

Baritone Eugene Perry gives a straightforward, somewhat stony portrayal of the lead role, while tenor Thomas J. Young shines vocally and theatrically in the dual role of Street and Elijah. Priscilla Baskerville, soprano, and Hilda Harris, mezzo-soprano, provide needed warmth and tenderness to the roles of Malcolm's mother/wife and sister, respectively.

This recording is issued on two discs and is accompanied by Ms. Davis's starkly simple, yet emotional, libretto. The Orchestra of St. Luke's is conducted by William Henry Curry.

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