Special Reports

MA Top 30 Professional: Anthony Davis

December 6, 2022 | By John Fleming

Distinguished Professor of Music, University of California, San Diego

Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X drew good notices for its 1986 premiere by New York City Opera. But it was not staged again in full until last May, when Detroit Opera mounted a newly revised version  by the composer and his cousin, librettist Thulani Davis. With Davóne Tines in the title role, the company gave three powerful, nearly sold-out performances in the 2,700-seat Detroit Opera House.

“I didn’t think it would take 36 years for a major revival, but I did think it would have a life afterward eventually. I was always optimistic about that,’’ Davis said of X, his first of eight operas. “And I thought it was so timely about what is happening now in America, with George Floyd and everything else.”

The innovative score has a nine-member jazz ensemble as part of the orchestra. “When I wrote it, the idea of incorporating improvisers into the orchestra was really unusual,” Davis said. “The only precedent was Duke Ellington’s collaborations with orchestras. I was interested in doing it because Malcolm was around music all the time. He knew the history of jazz, so telling his story through music was inspiration for the opera.”

X will be widely seen. There were performances by Opera Omaha in early November, and it will be staged by the Metropolitan Opera during the 2023–24 season. Also on the agenda are productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Seattle Opera.

Davis, who teaches composition at the University of California, San Diego, is known for politically charged works. He won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in music for The Central Park Five, his opera about the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino men for the rape of a white woman. You Have the Right to Remain Silent, a concerto that evokes the time the Black composer had a scary encounter with a white cop, is being championed by soloist Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, who will perform it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in March.




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