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Boston Modern Orchestra Project records Malcolm X opera

Scott Haas
Boston Modern Orchestra Project records Malcolm X opera
Davone Tines performs as Malcolm X in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X." PHOTO: KATHY WITTMAN

The world premiere recording of the revised version of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” was released in October by BMOP/Sound. Recorded at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre, where the opera was performed for one night only on June 17, the album has been nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award. 

“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” album cover. COURTESY PHOTO

“X” was composed by Anthony Davis, with a libretto written by his cousin Thulani Davis and story by his brother Christopher. Thulani Davis, renowned for her scholarship and writing, won a Grammy for her essay that accompanied the Aretha Franklin boxed set, “Queen of Soul — The Atlantic Recordings.” She also wrote the libretto for the opera “Amistad.”

“X” was first performed in 1986 and revived about 20 years later at Oakland Opera Theater, and then another 15 years went by before the Black Lives Matter movement, ignited in part by the murder of George Floyd, rekindled interest in Black composers. 

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project records “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” PHOTO: KATHY WITTMAN

Davis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his opera “The Central Park Five,” has found “X” to be a profound source for contemporary audiences nationwide. Recent performances include Detroit Opera, Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“When it was first performed, the opera was a pioneering work about a political and galvanizing figure,” Davis tells the Banner. “Without Malcolm X, there would be no Black Lives Matter. From the ’60s, we can still see that a very important part of our national sense of redressing wrongs are now still going on today.”

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project records “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” PHOTO: KATHY WITTMAN

According to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), “This recording of ‘X’ is the first in a series released over the next five years as part of ‘As Told By: History, Race, and Justice on the Opera Stage,’ BMOP’s multi-year initiative elevating and celebrating Black creativity in opera. Each of the recordings of ‘As Told By’ will be accompanied by a companion curriculum guide developed by the Boston-based chamber music and educational group Castle of Our Skins.”

BMOP, founded by Gil Rose, who is also its Artistic Director, worked closely with Davis to bring about the recent production and recording in Boston. The recording features performances by BMOP, Odyssey Opera, and a cast that includes Davóne Tines (bass-baritone) as Malcolm X and Whitney Morrison (soprano) as Louise/Betty.

Tines, a 2009 graduate of Harvard College with a degree in sociology, created an interdisciplinary storytelling class at Harvard with Zack Winokur, stage director, choreographer and dancer. When asked how he prepared to portray the iconic figure of Malcolm X, Tines tells the Banner that he “studied Malcolm X’s speech patterns and tried to see him as an embodied person, to understand him as he lived and breathed and existed as an actual person. The myths about him are built on a foundation of reality.”

Fundamental to the success of this opera are the ways in which the narrative is developed through the musical traditions of opera and jazz.

“There is a confluence of a lot of different strategies,” says Tines. “A whole gamut of music.”

Davis notes that “X” will have its Metropolitan Opera House premiere on Nov. 3, 2023. “It was exciting to have it staged at the Strand,” he says, “so close to where Malcolm X spent so much of his life.”