Monday, August 21, 2023

A Conversation with the Creators of X

During a talkback session after a performance of X:The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Detroit Opera, the Davises discuss the genesis of the opera with a group of students from Michigan State University.
© Detroit Opera/Austin Richey

During a break in their busy schedules, Seattle Opera brought together composer Anthony Davis, librettist Thulani Davis, and story writer Christopher Davis to discuss the genesis of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. It was a lively conversation, much like a family reunion, because the Davises are related. As they reminisced on the many milestones that marked the developments of the opera, Anthony, Thulani, and Christopher recalled the people and circumstances that shaped the opera.

Anthony Davis

Heralded as “A National Treasure” for his pioneering work in opera, composer Anthony Davis is the recipient of a Grammy nomination for the 1993 recording of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his most recent opera, The Central Park Five. His music has made important contributions not only in opera, but in chamber, choral, and orchestral music. He has been on the cutting edge of improvised music and jazz for more than four decades. Among Davis’s other operas are Under the Double Moon (1989), a science fiction opera, and Tania (1992), a work based on the abduction of Patricia Hearst. Davis has also been awarded a National Opera Association’s “Lift Every Voice” Legacy Award and a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.

Thulani Davis

Thulani Davis is an interdisciplinary scholar and writer of poetry, history, journalism, film, theater, and cultural criticism. Davis (cousin of composer Anthony Davis and story writer Christopher Davis) wrote the libretto for X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad. The Souls of Black Folks: An Oratorio for Five Actors (2003), Everybody’s Ruby: Story of a Murder in Florida (2000), the adaptation of George C Wolfe’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1990), and Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (1977) with Ntozake Shange and Jessica Hagedorn are among her stage plays. She is the author of Malcolm X: The Great Photographs (1993), and All the Renegade Ghosts Rises (1978), as well as other books. In 1992, Davis won a Grammy Award for her album notes for Aretha Franklin’s Queen of Soul—The Atlantic Recording, becoming the first female recipient of the award.

Christopher Davis

Christopher Davis (brother of composer Anthony Davis) has worked as an actor and director, in addition to his role as story writer for X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. He performed the role of Malcolm X in El Hajj Malik: A Play about Malcolm X by N. R. Davidson for theater companies in both New Haven, CT and Jamaica, Queens, in addition to creating the role of Nat Turner in Against the Sun by Ihsan Bracy. Since 1990, Davis has worked in market research for Ipsos NA, a multi-national French-held firm, where he is Director of Insights for the Ipsos Affluent Intelligence Group.

SEATTLE OPERA: Thank you for joining us this morning. We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts about the opera. We’d like to start by asking what sparked your interest in telling Malcolm’s story in the form of an opera?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Kip [Christopher Davis] was doing a play called El Hajj Malik, performing as Malcolm X in the play. He spoke to me about the idea of doing Malcolm, doing that story. The autobiography [“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley] had so many references to music, Kip thought we could tell Malcolm's story through the progression of jazz, let's say from the forties to the sixties, et cetera. I was intrigued that it should be an opera with Malcolm as a tragic hero. I studied a lot of Wagner when I was in school. I also read a lot of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s ideas about opera, and that's what got me really interested in opera. I strongly felt that Malcolm was a tragic hero figure whose story would lend itself to being told in opera.

New York’s Public Theater was one the city’s creative hubs for sparking new and experimental works in ’70s and ’80s, and the Davises were central figures.
© public domain

CHRISTOPHER “KIP” DAVIS: Also at the time, we were all in New York in the late ‘70s and early ’80s, which gave us the opportunity to work together. There was a lot of cross-pollination, across disciplines happening then. Anthony and Thulani had done some work together, combining her poetry and his music. We were all sort of involved in what was happening at The Public Theater, where they had concerts after events. So, we were clued into the possibilities of doing something across disciplines.

Anthony was also really interested in exploring longer forms. In the early ’80s he’d worked extensively with choreographers and was looking for other means of expression. I thought that the story of Malcolm X was almost a classic tragedy, including having the false reconciliation in Act Two followed by the true tragic ending in Act Three. At the time, we would all get together, hang out, and talk about this. It was decided that I would generate the story, Thulani would generate the libretto, and then pass it on to Anthony who would then write the music. Did I get that right, guys?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Yeah, that’s about it. Thulani and I were working together. We had done a lot of performances with poetry and music during that period. There's a show we did at The Public Theater with Ntozake Shange and Jessica Hagedorn called, Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon. It was an extraordinary time. We were working with incredible groups of musicians and poets.

THULANI DAVIS: I'm not sure this is relevant to writing opera, but one of the things that was extraordinary about putting together Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon was that everybody could improvise. And who does poetry improvising? But the band was so great, we ended up sort of learning how to improvise and double lines and stuff when the music got hot. That production ran for four weeks. We really go to work together. We [Anthony and I] did one other concert which made me know the opera could work. So, when he asked me about writing the words, I knew that it would work. I had a lot of confidence.

SEATTLE OPERA: At the time when you were creating X, were other operas focusing on real people?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Well, there was Satyagraha, [An opera with music by Philip Glass, libretto by Constance DeJong] which was based on Mahatma Gandhi. There was also Einstein on the Beach, which is a very abstract kind of thing. There was The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin that Robert Wilson did. There were pieces like that at the time. These pieces were very abstract. I think one of the advantages of doing stories about real person is that you don't have to deal with the copyright issues like you do with novels. Also, you can create your own stories out of the history.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Yeah, when I created the story of X, I combined several people into composite characters to push the narrative.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Like the character of Street. Street is a combination of various people in the autobiography. Focusing on real people is a potent, potent form of storytelling. But since X, I haven't really done any other operas that were based on just one figure. But I think that because of the nature of his story and the tragic nature of his story, I thought it was really an operatic story.

THULANI DAVIS: Well also, there weren't ten other composers doing black stories, that was for sure. And you have to know that in the autobiography, Malcolm had composite characters in order to conceal the identity of people who were gangsters that he had run around with. That aided us a lot. There were also things that he fudged in the book, which I didn't find out until later when family members came to see me. We got much more of it straight after the fact. When we approached people who knew Malcolm and told them that we were writing an opera about him and parts of life or really about anything, they didn’t trust us immediately. After they saw the work, then, ... oh, people would share their Malcolm X story. I was like, ‘Damn, where were you three years ago?’

ANTHONY DAVIS: We had a lot of that. A lot of that.

THULANI DAVIS: There was a steep learning curve for me after the fact, which was really interesting for me. And most people who knew him—family members and close friends— knew he had fudged certain things in the book, they were kind of okay with us continuing to do that.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley was published in October 1965, nine months after Malcolm X’s assassination. Haley coauthored the autobiography based on a series in-depth interviews conducted over two years.
© public domain

SEATTLE OPERA: Was Alex Haley involved in it at all? Did he see it?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Alex Haley. No. A lot was revealed after the fact. Thulani just mentioned people coming up to her saying they knew Malcolm. Our next-door neighbor at Martha's Vineyard, said she dated Malcolm Little in Lansing, Michigan. I didn't know this until, of course, I had already done the opera. Then I started hearing all these stories about playing tennis with Malcolm Little when they were teenagers and stuff like that.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: I guess the biggest reveals were our encounters with Betty Shabazz [Malcolm’s widow], who, of course, dismissed us like, ‘Who are you?’ And then suddenly it’s happening at City Opera, and she really wants to know who we are. That was kind of a difficult transition, but we were aided very much by Bill Lynch, Chief of Staff to David Dinkins, who was then Manhattan Borough President. He got us all together in a room and we kind of smoothed things out.

Betty Shabazz was Malcolm X’s widow. The couple married in 1958 and had six children. After Malcolm’s assassination, Shabazz earned a doctorate and served as a professor health science at Medgar Evers College and public speaker.

ANTHONY DAVIS: And of course, Beverly Sills...that's one of the great Beverly Sills stories. Beverly Sills meets Betty Shabazz. It was fantastic.

SEATTLE OPERA: How long was the incubation period for X, from the time it was an idea to actually going on stage?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Well, it got on stage in stages. I would say that the first stage readings from its inception was—I don't know—four months.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Yeah. I think I started working on it in ’83.

THULANI DAVIS: I can tell you the dates, because I wrote them down. It took me six months to do the first draft.

ANTHONY DAVIS: In ’84 we did the FolkFest workshop in Philadelphia at the American Music Theater Festival. Then in ’85, we did another performance in Philadelphia. That was at the Walnut Street Theatre. And then ’86 we were at City Opera.

THULANI DAVIS: I wrote down every single one of those dates you're mentioning. I went on my honeymoon in 1981. So what Anthony's saying is when we started workshopping in ’83.

SEATTLE OPERA: It seems like much of the opera was written at Martha’s Vineyard.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Some of it was, yeah. Well, I wrote some of the opera there. Other parts were created in various places. I wrote parts of it in Berkeley, California, actually. A friend of mine gave me her house while she was away so I could just write music. That was a very interesting period, because I was able to get together with composers Paul Drescher and John Adams. We would meet and talk about our projects.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: I wrote the story mostly at a friend's place in Lake Forest, Illinois. She was working upstairs finishing her dissertation, and I was working downstairs on the story.

THULANI DAVIS: I wrote the entire libretto in Brooklyn—in Fort Greene. I don’t think I worked in other places.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Most of time I was in Manhattan. I was living at Manhattan Plaza, which is on 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue.

THULANI DAVIS: Yeah. After I would send a scene or two, we had these meetings in diners around Manhattan Plaza.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: And then in my studio apartment in The Village, until the neighbors would knock on the door because we were laughing too loud.

THULANI DAVIS: I don't remember going to your place a lot. I think I only ever went there once.

SEATTLE OPERA: After almost 40 years, why do you think there is renewed interest in X?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Well, people caught up to us.

ANTHONY DAVIS: George Floyd happened. The reckoning that many opera companies and art institutions had with dealing with race and racism brought a new awareness to it. There were a lot of close calls, with a lot of interest in X over the years with different companies, but it never quite happened. I think many events, including the rise of Black Lives Matter and Malcolm X’s preeminence as a leader and a foreshadower for Black Lives Matter, became a kind of a critical mass that sparked interest. Also, Yuval Sharon, who's the director of Detroit Opera, really, really helped put together the companies that would eventually be involved in the project.

Soon after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, three artists—Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, and Xena Goldman—painted this mural at the murder site located on the corner of East 33rd and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis.
© Twin Cities Pioneer Press

THULANI DAVIS: My expression for it is: ‘George Floyd is mighty.’ But I think there were a lot of hesitancies in the past because we had improvisers in the orchestra, which no one at City Opera in the orchestra enjoyed. I think there were plenty of singers at the time to do it, but opera companies did not have Black singers in their companies. When we went to Chicago, there was one Black singer in that company. At City Opera there might have been one. They considered hiring one of our singers after the opera. A lot of people were telling us, well, it would be so expensive for them to get the singers for it. There was lots of stodginess that got in their way. I guess they continued doing things the same way. They could not envision doing this opera with mostly Black singers, a couple of Black dancers, and ten improvisers in the orchestra.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: I think one of the deterrents also was 9/11. After 9/11 it was not an appropriate time to tell a story that is built on the conversion to Islam as a triumphant moment. That’s a hard sell. It's taken George Floyd to push that off to the side and get us to move on.

THULANI DAVIS: I wanted to say that at that time City Opera didn't know how to engage with the public. In other words, we had to sit down and invent interactions with the community. We started at the Schomburg Library, where I had a part-time job. So, we did a piece of it there. We did a piece of it at the Guggenheim. We had to really sit down and invent all of that.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Yeah, it was much like a political campaign. It’s very, very interesting what we did.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: That's why it was important to have Bill Lynch and David Dinkins as enthusiastic supporters of the project.

ANTHONY DAVIS: David arranged the meeting with Beverly Sills and Betty Shabazz and us, where Betty Shabazz finally endorsed the opera.

THULANI DAVIS: Well, after torturing me. I had to go see her first before anything, and she gave me a hard time. I was just her. Her first question was: ‘Who do you think you are?’

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: That's right. And when the three of us went to meet in her office, she turned to me and said, ‘Are you the lawyer?’

ANTHONY DAVIS: The irony was that X was the most popular modern opera ever produced at City Opera in its history. There were buses from Harlem coming to the opera. I mean, it was pretty extraordinary.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: It just wasn't their subscribers.

ANTHONY DAVIS: But it showed a new model of what contemporary opera could do to bring in a new audience, whether they wanted to really deal with the idea that there was a new audience that's eager to see something like X.

New York City Opera’s presented X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X in 1986. The production starred Ben Holt (center) in the title role.
© New York Times/Carol Rosegg

THULANI DAVIS: And they had tickets for seven bucks! They had to add shows because people bought all the seven dollars tickets.

SEATTLE OPERA: During the opera’s development—especially while you were workshopping it—did you make any major revisions. Were there areas that were changed or cut?

ANTHONY DAVIS: The workshop process was amazing. Working with Rhoda Levine [opera director, choreographer] was really amazing. Rhoda was a big part of X. She was, in effect, our kind of dramaturge, because of all her experience in opera and doing so many contemporary operas, like Kaiser from Atlantis and the other operas she was associated with. It was part of my learning curve, how to do an opera. I remember her staging Louise’s scene. There was an instrumental interlude that happened before Louise sings. Rhoda asked me, ‘What is Louise doing during the interlude?’ We ended up writing more words for the scene. Thulani wrote a recitative that sets up the scene as a way to explain where she is and how she's feeling before she sings her aria. That made it ten times more effective than it was originally. There were lots of examples of that. I learned about crafting opera while we created X—what goes into an opera, how the drama works with the music. I think that that was important. I think particularly for a composer doing his first opera, workshops are vital for that.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: And with your background as an improviser, you were flexible in terms of changing things up. For instance, originally Street and Elijah weren't...those roles weren't doubled. Street was originally a baritone or a bass-baritone.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Malcolm is conceived as a high baritone.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: It was in response to the talent that we found that we rewrote it.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Avery Brooks was originally Street in the first workshop. He was so charismatic as Street. He came up to me and said, ‘Well, Tony, could I play Malcolm?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So, I had Avery play Malcolm, and I had to find a new Street. We were auditioning for Elijah Muhammad. Thomas Young came to sing. He sang Gounod's Faust and an aria from Daughter of the Regiment. I said, ‘Okay, you're Elijah Muhammad, no question.’

Then he said, he was singing in the jazz club in my building. I went to the gig with Kip. He did the most amazing version of “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon.” It was unbelievable. Then he did Strayhorn and Ellington songs, et cetera. And I said, ‘Well, he’s Street, too.’ I said to Kip, ‘We're going to have Street and Elijah Muhammad played by the same person.’

THULANI DAVIS: While we were rehearsing for a workshop, there was a singer playing Elijah who wanted to sing while standing on a ladder. He wanted to be higher than the other singers. His only frame of reference was playing the roles of kings. We were like, ‘Yeah, no. You're going to stand on the same level as everybody else.’ His experience up to that point was nothing like Street or Elijah or Malcolm. He’d not played people who hustled on a street corner in Harlem. They, all of the singers, were, in a sense, being asked to play roles like nothing they had ever played before. We had to show them everything, from how people walk across the stage to the formation and posture of the Fruit of Islam.

In Act III of the opera, Malcolm breaks from the Nation of Islam then makes a transformative pilgrimage to Mecca where he converts to orthodox Muslim and adopts the new name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
© Detroit Opera

Then there was the prayer scene in Mecca. I was warned about it from the first day I wrote that scene. I was called by a person to whom I described the scene. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I'm writing this opera and I'm writing the Mecca scene.’ And he was like, ‘Oh God, you cannot depict Mecca. It's a violation of the tenants of Islam. You cannot show Mecca.’ I was like, ‘The scene will show people circling the Black Rock.’ He was like, ‘No, they'll bomb the place.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay. Good to know.’

ANTHONY DAVIS: Also, you can't set any part of the Quran except the morning prayer. That’s the other thing.

THULANI DAVIS: I got a prayer book and set a morning prayer scene. We were somewhat terrorized up until it opened about how that was going to work. We had six Islamic newspapers at the opening. They thought it was very respectful. When we did it in Detroit last spring, several people came up to me who had come from New York to see it. They wanted to know if this was the first time Islamic prayers have ever been done in an opera. And I said, ‘I have no idea. But I wouldn't be surprised.’ The scene really hits people as unusual. Because it's so beautiful, reviewers tend to mention it quite often.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: I remember we were doing a workshop in BAM [The Brooklyn Academy of Music] in Brooklyn. Avery Brooks went to lunch and found somebody from the Fruit of Islam in full regalia and brought him to the rehearsal.

THULANI DAVIS: Well, we were in the perfect neighborhood for that to happen, yeah.

SEATTLE OPERA: What would you all like our audiences to know, or take away from X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Well, I think an understanding that the fact that culture and history are tied together. Culture, history, politics, and music are interwoven. Also, Blackness comes in different forms of representation. I mean, this is not Porgy and Bess. No, this is not Porgy and Bess. Back in the ’80s when we were creating X, we literally had to take Porgy and Bess out of the performers.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: And that we are more than love stories. We're bigger than love stories.

SEATTLE OPERA: Do you consider this story a biographical?


ANTHONY DAVIS: No, I hate that.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: That’s what Spike Lee did. When you say biography, it sounds like a made-for-TV series or something. I think that the structure we have makes this a story of transformation. I don't think of it as a straightforward biography.

ANTHONY DAVIS: It's a journey in terms of ideas, how ideas formed, and the pathways of how to be a Black man.

THULANI DAVIS: When Malcolm asks, ‘What it’s like to be God of an empty man like me?’ that’s a universal human experience. It's not political. It's not something you could say in a biopic. It’s tapping into feelings of desperation, isolation. We've all had moments like that. That’s the power opera can bring.

At the Detroit performance, grown men cried. They were moved by Malcolm’s first aria where he sings about his mother. There is something about what Anthony was saying about exploring Black manhood and the emotional arena of Black manhood. People don’t talk publicly or to each other, necessarily, about those things.

SEATTLE OPERA: While we’re thinking about manhood and masculinity, why did you voice Malcolm as a baritone? Footage of Malcolm’s speeches show that his voice was more of a high baritone.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Not really. Elijah’s voice is definitely a tenor. Also in Black music, the romantic hero is the baritone. It’s Billy Eckstine. When you think of singers from all the way from ’30s or ’40s, et cetera, it’s the baritone voice. It’s not the tenor voice so much. The tenor voice is the trickster.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Yeah, It’s Cab Calloway.

THULANI DAVIS: Or the occasional Johnny Mathis. The baritone thing seemed more like what we had always heard in those parts, I guess I would say.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: And there are a lot of male duets, so we wanted to have voices on either side of it. I've seen some stuff recently where the voices are in the same range, and it gets very confusing.

SEATTLE OPERA: This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your stories about the creation of X with us. We really appreciate it, and we know our audience will enjoy reading this interview. Thank you.

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X runs Febuary 4-March 9, 2024 at McCaw Hall. Tickets and info at


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