John Adams’s Nixon in China, first performed in 1987, is usually regarded as launching the concept of “CNN opera”: music-theatre works that dealt with contemporary events and recent history, often with protagonists who were still alive when they were first portrayed on stage. But arguably the genre had begun the previous year, with the staging at the New York City Opera of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, by the composer and pianist Anthony Davis, based on the life and death of the militant human rights campaigner Malcolm X.
X attracted a great deal of attention and controversy at the time of the official premiere (after substantial revisions following performances in Philadelphia the previous year). Some critics dismissed it as “agitprop”, others praised its power and originality, but subsequently it has been almost entirely neglected. Davis has composed another seven operas, including the more widely performed Amistad (which, like X, has a libretto by the playwright Thulani Davis, the composer’s cousin). But the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has rekindled interest in the score, and as well as the Boston performances that led to this recording – not the opera’s first, as the publicity claims, for an earlier one appeared in 1992 – Detroit Opera presented a new production last May, which will transfer to the New York Met next year.
“When I created the music of X, I felt a sense of musical freedom that liberated me from the confines of genre or the musical boundaries that segregated music into oppressive categories,” writes Davis. “I imagined an American opera that drew equally from the African diaspora and the European, where the immediacy of the improvised and subversive spirit of the blues meets the form and structure of a post-tonal language of Berg and Stravinsky.” Four decades later, his score still conveys a lot of that vivid urgency. The libretto was tightened for this performance but still creaks a bit and the narrative sometimes gets bogged down in historical detail; the portrayal of some of the subsidiary characters is rather schematic, and the choral word-setting can be just a bit too reliant on Carl Orff-like repetition. But the solo numbers, with their jazzy inflections, and the orchestral writing, with its obvious debts to Berg, are often powerfully effective. Generally, the mix of styles is made to seem natural and utterly appropriate in this performance, which is conducted by Gil Rose, with Davóne Tines as a charismatic Malcolm, Whitney Morrison in the role of his mother, Louise, and Ronnita Miller as his sister Ella. If it’s not the definitive account of a problematic opera, it’s certainly a significant version of a historically important one.