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Anthony Davis

Publisher: G. Schirmer

X -- The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986)
Text Writer
Libretto by Thulani Davis, story by Christopher Davis.
G Schirmer Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
2 Hours 30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
4 Baritones, 5 Tenors, 5 Mezzo sopranos, Bass Baritone, 5 Sopranos, Bass, non-speaking roles
Programme Note
Anthony Davis X -- The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986)
X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X sketches in a series of fast-moving vignettes the galvanic life and career of the controversial African-American activist Malcolm X (1925-1965). X features a dark, non-tonal palette, complex, shifting rhythmic patterns, and poignant lyricism; it is influenced by classical, popular, and non-Western sources. Examples of historical African-American music, including swing, scat, modal jazz, and rap, and the libretto's emulation of contemporaneous literary styles, help recreate the "sound" of Malcolm's era. Although X's score features some improvisational passages, it is constructed primarily according to traditional operatic guidelines.
First performance: New York City Opera, Christopher Keene, conductor, 28 September 1986.
This work was developed by the American Music Theater Festival, and had its first full-length production with orchestra in Philadelphia, PA, on 9 October 1985.
Cast List:
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  • Soloists
    Elijah/Street--(high tenor)
    Young Malcolm Little--(boy soprano)
  • Ensemble (minimum 15 members)
    *Social Worker/the Blonde/Girlfriend/Reporter--(soprano)
    Garvey Preacher/Father/Player/Inmate/Orator/Muslim--(baritone)
    Queen Mother--(mezzo-soprano)
    Blind Man/Salesman/Player/Inmate/Numbers Runner/Muslim/Pilgrim--(bass)
    Neighbor/Bootblack/Player/Inmate/Paper Peddler/Muslim/Pilgrim--(tenor)
    Neighbor/Church Woman/Muslim/Pilgrim--(mezzo-soprano)
    Neighbor/Malcolm's Sweetheart/Teen/Muslim/Pilgrim--(soprano)
    *Policeman/Guard/Pilgrim/Reporter--(white tenor)
    *Policeman/Guard/Pilgrim/Reporter--(white tenor)
  • Figurants
    Young Reginald Little (Malcolm's younger brother)/Muslim boy
    Yvonne Little (youngest sibling)/Muslim girl
    Hilda Little (oldest sibling)/Muslim girl
    Clothes Salesman/Dope Fiend/Muslim
    Young Woman/Dancer/Muslim
    *white cast members; all others must be black


The opera traces the life of Malcolm X from his boyhood in Lansing, Michigan, through his early brushes with the law, his conversion to the teachings of Elijah of the Nation of Islam, his own ministry and his breach with Elijah, his pilgrimmage to Mecca, and his assassination.

Act I, Scene 1
1931 The Universal Negro Improvement Association, led by Malcolm’s father, Rev. Earl Little, meets at the Little home. Rev. Little is late. A white policeman enters, claiming Rev. Little was killed in a accident. Mrs. Little believes he was killed by a Klan-like group. She suffers a breakdown. A Social Worker disperses the family.

Act I, Scene 2
Malcolm’s half-sister Ella convinces him to live in Boston. Malcolm is mesmerized by black city life. The charismatic Street “schools” Malcolm as a hustler; doing drugs, using women, and looting homes. After a break-in Police arrest Malcolm, and his white girlfriend.

Act I, Scene 3
In prison Malcolm examines his life and the forces that shaped it.

Act II, Scene 1
1946-48. Malcolm is visited in prison by his brother Reginald, a convert to the Nation of Islam. Malcolm becomes a believer and studies the Koran and black history. Upon release he meets Elijah, who teaches him Allah’s Law, and to spread Allah’s word. Malcolm Little renounces his “slave name” for an “X”and sets out to open new temples.

Act II, Scene 2
1954-55 Malcolm begins his ministry, setting up base in Harlem. 1963 As Malcolm answers questions after a speech, word of Kennedy’s assassination spreads. A Reporter asks Malcolm’s reaction, and he gives the controversial answer: “...the chickens have come home to roost.”

Act III, Scene 1
1963. Malcolm is summoned to see Elijah who accuses Malcolm of jeopardizing the Nation of Islam and censures Malcolm, silencing him for three months.

Act III, Scene 2
The Nation becomes divided. Many follow Malcolm, though he is in turmoil and feels betrayed. His wife Betty convinces him to make the hajj. In Mecca, Malcolm is among believers of many nations with whom he cannot communicate but whose faith he shares. Here, a new Malcolm is born, renouncing his separatist ideas and joining the larger community of Islam.

Act III, Scene 3
1964-65. Malcolm returns from the Near East. Reporters accuse him of sparking violence that erupted in Harlem while he was abroad. He tries to relate what he has learned and his intention to address the UN with the grievances of black Americans. Others warn of death threats and that he is “a threat to our Nation.” Malcolm, who has changed his name to El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is not concerned. During a speech in Harlem, he is gunned down by assassins.

X - The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Act 2 (full score)

X - The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Act 3 (full score)

  • Ensemble
    Orchestra of St. Luke’s
    Eugene Perry / Thomas J. Young / Priscilla Baskerville / Hilda Harris / Herbert Perry
    William Henry Curry
    Gramavision Records:
The Oakland Opera Theater…scored yet another triumph over the weekend with a mesmerizing new production of Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X....

With its mix of political fervor and emotional nuance, X encompasses within its three swift acts both the curtailed life of its protagonist and a portrait of the movement he helped to spearhead....In the 20 years since X had its world premiere at the New York City Opera....Sunday’s performance revealed a work of remarkable inventiveness and cogency that moves sure-footedly through a range of musical settings.

Davis writes in skillfully layered scenes that stride ahead or circle back on themselves as the narrative demands. Some of the music draws on traditional jazz...more often he combines a forceful rhythmic palette with beautiful, vividly etched melodic lines that soar and jab invitingly....X is...a richly rewarding theatrical experience. We can never have enough of those.

Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle,06/06/2006
[X] has brought new life to America's conservative operatic scene, being a work at once genuinely new, musically and theatrically effective, and concerned with matter that, still inflammatory [21] years after Malcolm X's assassination, is kept before us each day in New York's streets and by the news from South Africa....The work is gripping, and it is unlike any other opera....X is a work that deserves to enter the American repertory....

Not just a stirring and well-fashioned opera — that already is much — but one whose music adds a new, individual voice to those previously heard in our opera houses.

Andrew Porter, The New Yorker,01/01/0001
One extraordinary contemporary opera...[X] is a riveting work, uncompromising politically...splendidly theatrical. The odd thing is that it was put on in these reactionary times....The overall effect is of an amalgam of epic theater, classical opera, and jazz ensemble....A spellbinding work...authentically important and original.
Edward W. Said, The Nation,01/01/0001
A first-class piece of work and a significant addition to the American operatic repertoire.
Joseph McLellan, The Washington Post,01/01/0001
X has the markings of a great American opera
John Rockwell, Hte New York Times,01/01/0001
A startling debut...X [has] a strong story to tell, and a sense of urgent actuality in its undertow of black American traditions...
Paul Griffiths, The Tmes (London),01/01/0001
Anthony Davis' X...has drawn attention from far beyond the constituencies of either the composer or the genre. Not since Einstein on the Beach has an opera by a composer new to the form been such an event....The cumulative impact of X as remembered outweighs the relative stasis of its experience. Without acquiescing in any great measure to melodrama or entertainment value, Davis' complicated, sometimes dry and knotty, sometimes raucous and vibrant opera insists on its place as serious, new, black music.
Leighton Kerner, Leighton Kerner, Village Voice,01/01/0001
[X is] a notable success...
Chicago Tribune, ,01/01/0001
[Davis'] powerful...X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X caused a sensation at the New York City Opera.
Michael Walsh, Time Magazine,01/01/0001
The opera X [is] a striking piece of hybrid musical theater...groundbreaking...
Nancy Malitz, Ovation,01/01/0001
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