The Metropolitan Opera received the expected plaudits earlier this season for mounting X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, a 1986 opera by Anthony Davis based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York Times critic Joshua Barone marveled at seeing the names of Breonna Taylor and other alleged victims of America’s ongoing racist violence emblazoned on an overhead screen at an institution where “complex, current political realities rarely make their way on stage.” What may have once been “rare” at the Met is no longer so, however.
The production of X was part of the Metropolitan Opera’s reincarnation as an antiracist institution after the 2020 George Floyd race riots. In February 2021, General Manager Peter Gelb hired the company’s first chief diversity officer, even as the Met was warning of imminent financial collapse. This new position was based on the idea that the present-day Met discriminated against qualified black artists and needed a high-priced overseer to combat its reflexive racism.
In short order, the company produced two operas by another black composer, Terence Blanchard. Both had gay black protagonists, an intersectional coup, but were otherwise musically anodyne and muted in their political message.
X is neither. Anthony Davis is arguably the most militant of today’s black composers. (Daniel Bernard Roumain would vie for that title, but he is younger and less well known.) Davis favors tales of black victimhood, whether the alleged railroading of five black teenagers for the brutal 1989 rape of a white jogger in Central Park (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Central Park Five) or the struggles of blacks and homosexuals in the McCarthy era (Shimmer, still in development).
He has been showered with almost every honor that can grace a contemporary composer—from fellowships at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy and the MacDowell Colony to awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, OPERA America, and other institutions. He has taught at prestigious colleges, including Harvard and Yale. Malcolm X premiered to sold-out audiences at New York City Opera, then the second-most prestigious American venue for operas. The current production received a rare Ford Foundation grant (Ford stopped underwriting anything “white” long ago) as well as a National Endowment of the Arts grant. A host of opera companies rushed to co-produce this current revival: the Detroit Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Omaha, and Seattle Opera, several of which had issued particularly self-flagellatory statements about racism after the Floyd riots.
So naturally, Davis feels himself oppressed. He identified with Malcolm X while writing the opera, he says, specifically with Malcolm’s “rage fighting against systemic racism.” A lot of the things that were happening during Malcolm’s life, Davis said in an interview, are still happening today. A segment of American society “wants to render us [i.e., blacks] invisible,” according to Davis. “African American history is under assault in our culture.”
By a stroke of good fortune, the libretto for X contains the line: “You have your foot on me, always pressing.” Cue the George Floyd comparisons. The aria containing the line, sung by Malcolm in prison, “captures the relation of our community to the police and the power structure and the pain that comes out of that,” Davis said. Davis’s brother, Christopher, who wrote X’s book, described the reaction of Detroit school students to the aria: “They were like, ‘YES!’ and unfortunately, considering the way things are going, there will always be that reaction.” (For the record, there are counterarguments to the idea that the police and other representatives of the white “power structure” are the main threat in the black community today.)
Operas have been written about Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. It was overdetermined that Davis would choose for his subject one of the most polarizing black figures in American history, one almost universally repudiated by contemporaneous black leaders. Malcolm X’s reputation rests mainly on his vilification of whites. “Coffee is the only thing I like integrated,” he once said. (Malcolm X modified that separatist stance at the end of his truncated life.)
Unlike Anthony Davis, however, Malcolm X (née Malcolm Little) came to his belief in endemic white oppression through experience. He grew up in a world where whites took it as their birthright to humiliate blacks just for the sake of signaling their own racial superiority. “They called us nigger and darkie and Rastus so much that we thought those were our natural names,” Malcolm X recounts in his autobiography. (Davis’s opera picks up this line.) Malcolm’s parents, organizers for Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, were continuously harassed as Malcolm was growing up in the late 1920s in Lansing, Michigan, and other Midwestern cities. His father was fatally struck by a streetcar when Malcolm was six. The black community reasonably assumed that white vigilantes had pushed the father under the car. Malcolm’s mother lost her sanity and Malcolm and his siblings were placed in foster care. An English teacher told him to abandon his thoughts of becoming a lawyer, despite his strong school performance, because that was “no realistic goal for a nigger.”
The mystery is not why someone like Malcolm Little, chafing under de jure and de facto segregation, concluded that white men were devils. The mystery is why other black leaders abjured such anti-white vituperation and held out hope that white Americans would finally conform their actions to the country’s founding creed. Malcolm was contemptuous of these mainstream civil rights fighters: “You show me a black man in America who is not an extremist and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric treatment.”
X is a jarring opera on jarring themes. Act One covers the father’s presumed murder and Malcolm’s move to Boston to live with his adult half-sister; Malcolm’s descent into Boston’s black criminal underworld; and his arrest for burglary. Act Two covers his prison conversion to the Nation of Islam; his first meeting with the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad; and his rise as a galvanizing force in the Black Muslim movement. Act Three covers his pilgrimage to Mecca and his break with the Nation of Islam. The opera ends with Malcolm’s assassination in Harlem in 1965 at the age of 39.
Davis’s composing style combines avant-garde jazz and the standard post-postromantic classical idiom of the twentieth century. Jagged vocal lines jump wide intervals outside of any apparent key; the nonharmonic orchestral writing is disconnected to the vocal line. The rhythmic stress in each measure is almost always irregular. Two leitmotifs—nervous, obsessive, unsettling—appear throughout the score: the first, a pair of minor thirds that ascend chromatically up the scale, the second, an inversion of this pattern downward.
Many scenes are prolonged beyond any musical or dramatic interest. The chorus will repeat a phrase, such as “Africa for Africans,” or “Allahu-Akbar,” at high volume on a single note. Davis may have been aiming to recreate a cathartic ritual experience, but the result is listener exhaustion.
The opera’s most punishing aria occurs early on, in an audience trial by fire. Malcolm’s mother, waiting apprehensively for her husband to return from a Marcus Garvey organizing session, recalls the Ku Klux Klan raids, including an arson attack, on the family’s homes. The vocal leaps here are at their most extreme, the repudiation of melody the most jarring, in a sonic portrait of psychological torment.
The musical style changes abruptly, however, when Malcolm arrives in Boston. Malcolm’s bourgeois half-sister describes to him the attractions of the big city, backed up by the suave piano and brushed snare drum of 1940s cool jazz. “Come with me, child, come with me,” she croons. But there is someone else trying to gain Malcolm’s loyalty: a charismatic hoodlum named Street, clad in an ochre plaid zoot suit and broad brimmed rust-colored hat, who controls black Boston’s gambling, drug, and prostitution rings. Street belts out his pitch for the underworld—“Play the game . . . The hustler gets them all”—to the accompaniment of Big Band swing jazz and bebop. Hot trumps cool, and the country bumpkin Malcolm is hooked.
Street is a descendant of Sportin’ Life from Porgy and Bess, though commentators never mention that genealogy, presumably because Sportin’ Life’s progenitors were white. Street’s ancestors also include Rossini’s Figaro and the Jets, advising each other to “stay cool.” Street disappears after Malcolm, now reborn as one of the cats in a robin’s egg blue zoot suit, is arrested for burglary and sent to prison. Sadly, Street’s exuberant music goes with him. Davis will continue to weave jazz into the score, but from later, more experimental styles.
A third suitor for Malcolm’s attachment appears to him in prison. Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, arrives in his signature pill box cap to convert Malcolm to the Nation. Elijah Muhammad’s music in this scene in the closest thing in X to what most people hope for in opera—a soaring, full-throated expression of human desire. “Come, Malcolm X, let me teach you,” Muhammad sings in a thrilling crescendo. Yet even here the musical line defeats expectations by veering away from tonal harmony or conventional rhythmic stress.
Tenor Victor Ryan Robertson dominated the Metropolitan production as both Street and Elijah Muhammad. Robertson’s command of jazz syncopation, his expressive vibrato, and his cocky self-confidence brought the hustler alive. Later in the opera, Robertson infused concentrated heat into the break-up between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Malcolm had been asked by reporters for reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy Jr. He responded: “America’s climate of hate is coming back on itself. Not only are defenseless blacks killed but now it has struck down the Chief of State. . . . it’s a case of the chickens coming home to roost.” (This phrasing from the libretto closely approximates the phrasing in the Autobiography.)
But Muhammad had already sent out a directive to Nation ministers forbidding comment on the assassination. He confronts Malcolm with his disobedience. At the climax of a prolonged scene of dissonant and escalating tension, Muhammad cries out: “You kick the dead while the country weeps! You will be silent! you will say nothing!”
In an otherwise mediocre libretto, the concision of these lines greatly betters the source material. In the Autobiography, Elijah Muhammad tells Malcolm: “That was a very bad statement, the country loved this man. The whole country is in mourning. That was very ill-timed. A statement like that can make it hard on Muslims in general. I’ll have to silence you for the next 90 days, so that Muslims can be disassociated from the blunder.” The “while the country weeps” phrase also humanizes the Black Muslim leader by portraying him as capable of sympathizing with all Americans.
Compared with the combined force of Street and Elijah, Malcolm is a more tightly wound presence. He is given the one unqualifiedly beautiful vocal interval in the opera, however. Musing in prison on what he has just learned about Allah, Malcolm sings: “To say His name is to praise him.” The first two words span a minor seventh (the same interval that begins “There’s a place for us” from West Side Story). Here it is even more yearning and poignant, especially in baritone Will Liverman’s delicate slide into the upper note. The American Songbook waits in the wings. Anthony Davis knew he had a good thing; a saxophone adumbrates the leap early in the scene and picks it up again afterward. But these seeds of real melody go nowhere, and the vocal line soon peters out.
Liverman possesses a rich, supple voice that conveyed Malcolm’s smoldering fury. But it is the child version of Malcolm who delivers the opera’s indelibly haunting moment. After Malcolm’s mother becomes catatonic following her husband’s murder, an officious white social worker screeches at the young Malcolm that he will become a “ward of the state.” The boy, sung by Bryce Christian Thompson, sits alone at the back of the stage, pleading “Momma help me” on a high single pitch as the piano drops eerie disconnected notes around it.
Betty Shabazz, the late widow of Malcolm X, had complained to X’s creators early on that they had made the Nation look too good. If we had not made the Nation compelling, they responded, your husband was a fool.
Shabazz was right, however. X whitewashes the Nation. Unmentioned is its creation myth whereby a black mad scientist created whites through hundreds of years of selective breeding. Unmentioned are Elijah Muhammad’s bastard children. (Muhammad’s serial violations of the Nation’s rules about marital fidelity inflamed tensions between the now strictly self-disciplined Malcolm and his leader.) Most startlingly, the opera barely hints at the identity of Malcolm’s assassins—almost certainly Nation members sent by Elijah to take down an apostate and rival. The assassination scene is rushed and, in the current production, visually indecipherable. Those Detroit school children who were so taken by X’s George Floyd echo could be forgiven for assuming that Malcolm was murdered by whites. In the lead-up to the shooting, a chorus had told Malcolm: “They’ll hunt you down. They’ll keep coming, some say it’s police, some say it’s hired hands. Some say FBI.” Malcolm responds: “They can kill Malcolm X, but blacks will stand up because we have rights. We want our freedom at any cost.”
Whatever else can be said about the Nation, it was not opposed to black political power. That leaves whites as the only logical candidates for Malcolm’s killers, an ungrounded implication but one in line with the opera’s world view, wherein all the whites who appear on stage are loathsome bigots.
The Metropolitan Opera endorses this Manichean world view. “The staging prompts audiences to consider the significance of the movement for racial justice in contemporary life,” a program book states. “The names of recent victims of police brutality are projected on stage as if conjuring voices from the future, conveying the long history of anti-black violence in this country and the continued urgency of Malcolm’s teaching.” Which “teaching” is the Met referring to? At the end of the opera, Malcolm calls for a pan-African revolution against colonialism. “Political determination comes from ballots or from bullets,” he preaches. Does the Met believe that American blacks are so oppressed today that they might have to throw off their shackles at gunpoint?
In fact, what the staging most prompted was not, as the Met suggested, considerations of “racial justice,” but befuddlement. Only by having read up on the production beforehand would a viewer have had any idea that the horizontal bar listing massively over the stage was a spaceship that had brought black visitors from other galaxies to view Malcolm’s story. These black aliens stood around in outlandish costumes blending medieval and astronaut motifs. One female chorister wore a piece of gold body armor that limned her anatomical parts. Producer Robert O’Hara, making his Met debut, borrowed the space age iconography from an aesthetic movement known as Afrofuturism, which began with the 1970s funk band Parliament Funkadelic.
Equally perplexing was a tiny proscenium at the back of the stage framing a painted backdrop of mountains and stream. The Little family gathered in front of it at the start of the opera, as if Lansing (where the Littles were then living) were located in the Rockies. The backdrop replicated one in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm was killed, but that echo would have been lost on most viewers.
Intermixed at random moments among the space aliens and Fruit of Islam henchmen was a large group of dancers in unisex taupe skirts. Their movements, choreographed by Rickey Tripp in another Met debut, blended standard Martha Graham gestures—arms extended, hands clasped in front of the body like a divining rod—with spastic outbreaks of nervous energy. The dancers’ relationship to the characters or the dramatic action was inscrutable.
Malcolm X’s contemporaries in the civil rights movement dismissed the Nation of Islam. Thurgood Marshall claimed that the group was “run by a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that Malcolm’s talk had brought “misery upon Negroes.” Carl Rowan, the director of the U.S. Information Agency, lamented Africa’s lionization of Malcolm after his assassination: “Here was a Negro who preached segregation and race hatred, killed by another Negro, presumably from another organization that preaches segregation and race hatred, and neither of them representative of more than a tiny minority of the Negro population of America.”
Malcolm returned the contempt. “We’re not askin’ Massa to sit at a lunch counter,” he says dismissively in the opera. “We want self-determination.”
Malcolm has had the last laugh. Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a majority of the humanities and social science professoriate, academic and corporate diversity bureaucrats, college presidents, editors of scientific journals, chairs of STEM departments: all are Malcolm’s intellectual heirs in their insistence on the intractability of black victimhood at the hands of perennially bigoted whites. The rhetoric may have become less raw—instead of white devils, we speak of white privilege—but the meaning is the same. Segregation, in the form of black college graduations, black dorms, black cultural centers, black freshmen orientations, black theater, black Zoom breakout sessions, is now a demand, not a yoke. Conservative whites may wistfully intone the peroration of King’s “I Have a Dream speech,” but elite blacks admonish us that the color of their skin is the most important content of their character. (And why shouldn’t it be, since we have made it the ticket to college admissions, jobs, and promotions?) America may celebrate King Day, but its opinion makers take inspiration from Malcolm.
This enduring influence made the opening night of X at the Met, last November 3, an unsettling experience. To be sure, the mood was festive. New York’s black intelligentsia had turned out in force, their sequins, silk, and velvet putting to shame today’s average Met attendee in workout clothes. Anna Deavere Smith floated in a pink cloud of ostrich feathers, receiving admirers. Pre-performance chit-chat touched on such topics as the “black” shows currently on view at the Whitney Museum of Art. Latecomers continued to be seated during the overture, a departure from the Met’s strict rules about timely arrival. Despite the genial atmosphere, one wondered how one’s seatmates were responding to the opera’s vituperations against the “white man.” Did those seatmates feel “YES!” like the Detroit school children? Was the racial divide as wide as ever, including in the Met’s $300 orchestra section? One had a fleeting insight into the insecurities of the nineteenth-century censor, worried about the passions that an insufficiently royalist libretto might unleash. In this case, though, the governing regime openly encourages these passions.
X is even more in touch with the times today than when it premiered in 1986. On Christmas Day of 2023, a deranged vagrant stabbed two teenage girls visiting New York from Paraguay in Grand Central Station, after allegedly having shouted “I want all white people dead.” The assailant was a devotee of YouTube videos about Malcolm X, according to an ex-girlfriend. X will undoubtedly become a standard part of the Met’s repertoire. We can dream that its celebration of black militancy will one day seem quaint.
Photos by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images