Seattle Opera’s X reflects on Malcolm X’s legacy, past and present

United StatesUnited States Anthony Davis, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X: Soloists, Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony / Kazem Abdullah (conductor). McCaw Hall, Seattle, 25.2.2024. (ZC)

Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm) © Sunny Martini

Director – Robert O’Hara
Sets – Clint Ramos
Costumes – Dede Ayite
Lighting – Alex Jainchill
Projections – Yee Eun Nam
Choreographer – Rickey Tripp

Malcolm – Kenneth Kellogg
Elijah / Street – Joshua Stewart
Louise / Betty – Leah Hawkins
Ella / Queen Mother – Ronnita Miller
Reginald – Joshua Conyers
Young Malcolm – Jace Johnson
Social Worker / Reporter 1 – Allison Pohl
Cop / Reporter 2 – Chad Demaris

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X is a groundbreaking work, and its 1986 premiere marked a significant moment for both the composer and the opera world. X finally graced the stage of The Metropolitan Opera in late 2023, a further – if belated – recognition of the opera’s impact. In early 2024, it was eagerly welcomed by Seattle audiences. (Robert O’Hara’s staging is a co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, Detroit Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Omaha)

Beyond its artistic merit, X has proved to be a powerful social force. Performances in Seattle drew a notably diverse audience, especially for a region of historically lower diversity. This alone suggests that contemporary opera has the potential to go beyond traditional boundaries and engage a wider range of people when tackling relevant, thought-provoking themes. The success of X serves as a beacon of hope, demonstrating that opera can evolve and stay relevant in an ever-changing cultural landscape.

Even though X is nearly forty years old, it is hauntingly prescient for contemporary audiences. X’s relevance extends beyond the historical importance of Malcolm X and is acutely captured by each character’s encounters with a racist social, governmental or political order. The transgressions begin almost immediately with the murder of Malcolm’s father by white supremacists, and the narrative flows seamlessly into Malcolm’s time in prison – a not uncommon experience for young Black men then as it is now. Even the opera’s end, with Malcolm as another victim of gun violence in what was almost certainly a politically motivated assassination, carries sad relevance in today’s world.

The opera traces Malcolm’s life in broad strokes from childhood to death. Anthony Davis’s treatment of Malcolm’s early years tends to drag, though the narrative picks up when Malcolm (Kenneth Kellogg) is sent to prison and is introduced to the teachings of Elijah Mohammed (Joshua Stewart), then the head of the Nation of Islam. Kellogg and Stewart are bright spots in an otherwise uneven cast (both appeared in Seattle Opera’s recent production of Blue by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson). Stewart’s sinewy tenor beautifully conveyed Mohammed’s charisma, while Kellogg delivered a thunderous performance that embodied his confidence and command. Notable performances also came from Ronnita Miller, who excelled as the Queen Mother but was more difficult to hear as Ella, Malcolm’s sister. Like Miller, Leah Hawkins sang two roles, Betty and Leah – and her Betty oozed warmth as Malcolm X’s confidant and wife.

Clint Ramos’s sets, which are some of the best to grace McCaw Hall in recent seasons, straddle the line between traditional and futuristic. A terraced, sloping structure hanging above the stage gives the production an otherworldly feel, and moveable ladders, antique microphones, exposed brick and small framed sets provide a timelessness that orients the audience in the mid-twentieth century. Near the opera’s end, Ramos deploys dozens of lamps suspended over the stage to achieve an awe-inspiring effect for Malcolm X’s pivotal visit to Mecca, which reoriented the activist’s calling near the end of his life.

Seattle Opera’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X © Philip Newton

Under Kazem Abdullah’s baton, the Seattle Symphony delivered a vibrant performance of Davis’s energetic score. The music, a captivating blend of Alban Berg’s influence, jazz and improvisation, felt both familiar and refreshingly modern. Mirroring Malcolm X’s multifaceted character, the score defies easy categorization. It is dynamic and constantly evolving, echoing the complexities of the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. Despite its complexity, the music remains engaging and intriguing, drawing the audience into Malcolm X’s journey and challenging them to grapple with his story.

In its fusion of music, narrative and social commentary, the opera is a poignant testament to the enduring relevance of Malcolm X. Striking sets, masterful conducting and epic performances by Joshua Stewart and Kenneth Kellogg contribute to a multi-dimensional portrayal of him. The opera resonates with themes of racial injustice and personal transformation, honoring his memory and prompting us to reflect on the continued struggles for equality and justice in our society.

Zach Carstensen

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