Abundant light streaming through a window high on a wall, just out of reach.
This image was one of many projections used in Friday’s performance of Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” The audience was also shown images of hooded riders of the Ku Klux Klan, torches being lit, corpses hanging from trees.
But it was that poetic evocation of a distant light that seemed to capture the ethos of this riveting and poignant opera. Premiered at New York City Opera in 1986 and then more or less forgotten, “X” feels all-too-relevant today — in its summoning of a painful national past, in its attention to the structural racism built deeply into our society, and in its honoring of a single extraordinary life bent on challenging the status quo. Some of the lines of the libretto by the playwright Thulani Davis (Anthony’s cousin) after a story by Christopher Davis (his brother), could have been written yesterday. “As long as I’ve been living you’ve had your foot on me,” the title character sings, “always pressing.”
Performed to a packed Strand Theatre in Dorchester, “X,” conducted by Gil Rose with rising star Davóne Tines in the title role, was a forceful, resonant way for Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera to launch their new five-year cycle of operas by Black composers.
Anthony Davis’s work is constructed as a series of charged episodes from the life of Malcolm X, beginning with his boyhood in Michigan, through his flirtation with street life, his embrace of the Nation of Islam, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his assassination. That this opera so promptly disappeared after its premiere feels both mysterious (given its quality) and not (given the abidingly conservative nature of the opera world).
The libretto deftly enhances the narrative’s key themes. And with an octet of improvisers embedded within the traditional orchestra, the music finds an organic middle ground between modernist elements and jazz. At several crucial junctures within this spiritually attuned score, an improvised wailing surges up from the brasses, as if to represent the soul resisting its imprisonment within a false system. James Baldwin once described creating music as imposing order on “the roar rising from the void.” Crucially, Davis has found a way to establish that order while still preserving the roar.
Reprising the title role he recently sang in Detroit Opera’s production of “X,” Tines was entrancing on Friday, his performance seamlessly combining vocal and dramatic gesture to delineate Malcolm X’s evolving character with pinpoint precision. In the opera’s the final moments, just prior to the assassination, Tines sang and moved with a slow deliberateness, projecting a sense of hard-won spiritual insight that only heightened the poignancy of the opera’s violent end.
He was joined by a strong cast of singers including Whitney Morrison (as Malcolm’s mother, Louise, and as his wife, Betty Shabazz); Ronnita Miller (as Malcolm’s sister Ella), and Victor Robertson (as Elijah Muhammad and a character named Street). Jonathan Harris plaintively sang Malcolm as a boy, pleading for help from his mother after his father’s death. And the chorus (Kenneth Griffith, choral conductor) was a unifying force throughout, participating in, amplifying, and commenting on the action. Rose conducted with unflagging energy.
Something of that energy could be felt pulsing through the audience as well on Friday, as BMOP and Odyssey Opera begin their efforts to engage with the country’s racial reckoning through the prism of opera. But what, in this context, can opera really do?
In “X,” the title character begins to answer when he sings, “I come to tell the history.” That may sound straightforward, but it isn’t. Unlike your standard history textbook, an opera such as “X” asks us not to memorize the past but to re-encounter it, to relive these moments as if in real time — only in this case, the meanings of that history can be expanded and deepened by all the intensifications, shadings, and perspective that an inspired score can bring, churning beneath the surface of the words.
The result, in its best moments, can be a new dimensionality for both past and present — and even something of a correction. In an editorial after his death, The New York Times described Malcolm X’s life as “strangely and pitifully wasted.” Yet the entire Black Lives Matter movement, as the scholar Ibram X. Kendi and many others have pointed out, is indebted to his legacy. This particular opera helps an amnesiac culture understand why. And it does so by implicitly linking contemporary struggles with a much older story of reaching for that distant light.
“X: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MALCOLM X”
Opera by Anthony Davis, Libretto by Thulani Davis
Gil Rose, conductor
Presented by BMOP in partnership with Odyssey Opera
At: Strand Theatre, Friday night
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.