Sunday, February 25, 2024

West Coast Premiere of “X” Triumphs


Philip Newton

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


First opera by Black composer on Seattle Opera main stage 

The opening night of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X proved a winner for composer Anthony Davis, librettist Thulani Davis, and story author Christopher Davis, all of whom were in the audience for the February 24 Seattle Opera premiere. The trifecta have created a work replete with tour-de-force roles for multiple singers, plenty of action, and high drama as high art. Themes of truth vs oppression were driven home by the dramatic music and the compelling libretto and story.

The trailblazing work is not new. It first premiered at New York City Opera in 1986 and was performed to huge success this past season at the Metropolitan Opera. These days it takes a village to create innovation in the opera world; the current revival of this co-production of Seattle Opera, Detroit Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Met, and Opera Omaha remains as revolutionary—both musically and politically—as it was at its outset.

That Malcolm X endures as a dynamic, yet puzzling and misunderstood, public figure is a testament to his continued significance in modern society. To this day, opinions about him amongst people of all races vary wildly. All the more reason why an opera chronicling his life and times is more relevant than ever.

Rex Walker, Leah Hawkins
Philip Newton
Two major figures, both of them tour-de-force roles, stand out from the cast. Not surprisingly Kenneth Kellogg in the title role rises to the top. Omnipresent as a character, from the Malcolm of his childhood, played with remarkable panache by Rex Walker in his SO debut, and throughout the work, the demands of the role are huge, and Kellogg proved worthy of the task. His sizable voice projected to great effect over the large orchestration, and his dramatic portrayal of the enigmatic leader was convincing in all of its permutations. One never tired of watching him.

As Elijah Muhammad, Joshua Stewart stood out from the very first for his impressive clarion vocality. The voice sounded glorious in all registers, and especially in the top range, where the tessitura was challenging.

Joshua Stewart
Philip Newton
On the female side of the ledger, debuting artists Leah Hawkins and Ronnita Miller gave striking performances. As Malcolm’s mother Louise, Hawkins started off the evening with an arduous aria that demanded virtuosity in every range, from the profound bottom notes to the extreme high ones. She also was effective as Malcolm’s wife Betty. Miller’s Wagnerian instrument was imposing in the roles of Ella and the Queen Mother. Joshua Conyers was outstanding as Malcolm’s brother Reginald.

Robert O’Hara’s stage direction, along with debuting associates Melanie Bacaling and Nicholas Polonio, demonstrated a powerful vision of the protagonist’s social identity that was consistent and balanced in its historical view yet maintained the radical intensity of the subject matter. All of the characters integrated with each other in the multiple vignettes as true, living beings in a momentous episode of our past. Every scene connected seamlessly with the next, providing a context that made the viewer feel as if they were witnessing events in real time.

The bold set designs of Clint Ramos and his associate Diggle grabbed the attention from the beginning. Part Star Trek, part temple ministry of both past and future, the visuals were arresting and skillfully integrated into the story and action. The lighting designs and projections of Alex Janchill and Yee Eun Nam, both in their SO debuts, with assistance from debuting designer Paige Seber, were nothing short of dazzling. The eye-catching amalgamation of lighting and projections made the drama stand out in every scene.

Philip Newton
The chorus ensemble of friends and others were also stars of the show. Appearing in a variety of ways in multiple scenes, these outstanding singers negotiated the many roles required of them with memorable brilliance. The Greek chorus of dancers, inventively choreographed by Rickey Tripp and Arianne Meneses in their SO debuts, provided a throughline of activity that heightened the many contrasting dramatic moments.

Philip Newton

Sunny Martini

Davis’s music, from the jazz-inflected overture to the poignant arias and vibrant choruses, was mesmerizing. The urgency of the narrative was vividly portrayed in each moment, whether action driven or meditative. His score was masterfully done: creative and innovative, with an improvising ensemble embedded within, providing intriguing hints of his later operas to come.

Conductor Kazem Abdullah maintained exceptional control of the orchestra with sensitivity and clarity of movement, in a score that contained huge contrasts in style from scene to scene. Great demands were made on the orchestra, especially the extensive trumpet solos which were admirably executed, and Abdullah made sure the appropriate voices stood out when needed.

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X is without doubt a definitive event for Seattle Opera, and worth experiencing in all of its many extraordinary aspects. 

Kenneth Kellogg
Sunny Martini

Photo credits: Phillip Newton, Sunny Martini

 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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