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It took 37 years for the opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X to move 410 feet from what’s now the David H. Koch Theater to the Metropolitan Opera House. The much-mourned New York City Opera premiered this magnificent work in 1986, but it was only in the wake of the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death that the nation’s leading opera company made a serious commitment to presenting contemporary works by composers of color.

With music by Anthony Davis, libretto by Thulani Davis and story by Christopher Davis, X—nearly four hours long—fuses modern dance, music, poetry, theater and digital innovation to tell the story of the personal transformation of Malcolm Little into Detroit Red, Malcolm X and el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and his evolution from a victim of poverty to gang member and street criminal to organizer, minister, prophet and martyr.

The opera is not perfect: it could have said more about context and his philosophical development. As one critic noted, the vocal lines “are more declamatory than melodic and have a sameness that can prove tiresome.” Also, the audience never truly gets a sense of the title character’s “legendary charisma or the magnetic effect of his rhetoric.”

Still, the opera is visually stunning and remarkably thought-provoking. I urge you to see it.

The lyrics are poetic and often profoundly poignant, and the dance interludes are astonishingly powerful and evocative. If X lacks truly memorable arias, its fusion of musical styles, including jazz, blues, gospel and musical modernism; its inventive use of immersive visual projections; its Afro-futurist aesthetic (evident in “swirling images above the stage” and “fluctuating lighting and projections, variously resemble cosmic planetary formations”); and its most rapturous moments—like Malcolm X’s mother’s descent into despair and madness—will, I am convinced, become embedded in opera’s storied history.

Organized around 12 vignettes from Malcolm X’s life, the libretto begins with his harrowing early years in Depression-era Lansing, Mich., and the terror that stalked his childhood, including his father’s death, which neighbors attributed to white supremacists, and the social worker who declared his family’s children wards of the state.

The libretto, then, follows him through his earliest years, from his half sister’s home in Boston to his introduction to life on the streets—where, after dark, in clubs and dance halls, he encountered the vibrant life that would contribute to the lyricism and richness of his language. The audience witnesses his arrest for robbery, his imprisonment, his introduction to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and his rebirth as Malcolm X and watches as he founds temples in Boston, Atlanta, Hartford, Philadelphia, Springfield and New York.

Through aria and recitative, he articulates his philosophy: that Black Americans’ history had been stolen and erased, that they are a nation trapped within a nation, dying to be born. Then, we come to that climactic moment, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when he attributes the president’s murder to “America’s climate of hate”—the same hate that struck down Medgar Evers and Patrice Lumumba and that is “coming back on itself.” “It’s a case of the chickens coming home to roost.”

Those words, which helped precipitate his break with Elijah Muhammad, set the stage for the opera’s concluding act. There’s an incredibly moving and powerful account by Betty Shabazz of how he was lost and subsequently found himself on a hajj to Mecca. The opera concludes with his founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which sought to “reconnect African Americans with their African heritage, establish economic independence and promote African American self-determination,” and his murder.

I think it is fair to say that Malcolm X is as alive today as he was at the time of his assassination. He’s not only been the subject of Spike Lee’s 1992 feature film, but of a 1995 PBS American Experience documentary and dozens of biographies. He lives on, in large measure, because no one was more forceful in calling for “the decolonization of the black mind—the wakening of a proud, bold, impolite new consciousness of color and everything color means in white America.”

But who was Malcolm X?

The FBI, which followed his life from 1953 onward and compiled a 3,600-page file, considered him a white-hating demagogue and the most potent internal threat to the nation’s security. In his 1993 account of the plot to kill Malcolm X, Karl Evanzz argues that the FBI and “the CIA conspired to monitor, manipulate and finally silence the Black nationalist leader”—a view echoed in another 1993 book by Baba Zak A. Kondo.

Journalist Peter Goldman, a self-described white liberal, who published the first major biography in 1973, treated Malcolm X not as a revolutionary but a liberal in the making who played a crucial role in exposing “the enormity of this country’s racial antagonism” and who, by the end of his life, had abandoned his earlier perception of all white men as devils.

Biographer Bruce Perry’s astonishingly negative 1991 psychoanalytic account “depicts a self-hating, conflicted man who hungered for the approval of the very authority figures he defied” and as a “political chameleon, tailoring his rhetoric in order to tell moderates, black revolutionaries and socialists what they wanted to hear.”

Manning Marable’s much more nuanced and positive 2011 biography views him—with his denunciation of white supremacy and his calls for liberation “by any means necessary”—as among this country’s most commanding revolutionary thinkers. Yet this book received harsh criticism for its claims that early on Malcolm X supported himself, in part, as a male prostitute and scapegoated Jews throughout his life.

The most recent major biography, The Dead Are Arising, by the investigative journalist Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne, published in 2020, does the most impressive job of contextualizing the man’s life and thought but says little about his relationship with his wife or a crucial 1957 incident that projected Malcolm X into the public eye: when he organized demonstrations to protest the beating by police of Nation of Islam member Johnson Hinton.

Alex Haley, who collaborated in the writing of Malcolm X’s autobiography, considered his life a work in progress. That, I think, remains the dominant view, and it’s the perspective is reflected in the opera. The autobiography, published eight months after the man’s murder, which sold 400,000 copies in its first year, 800,000 copies in its second and six million copies by 1977, traces a lifelong attempt to grapple with race, politics, religion and justice.

As for Anthony Davis’s X, it captures Malcolm X’s rage, but in some respects, I think, it downplays his radicalism.

The work does raise some broader questions about the place of opera in contemporary life.

  • Does opera have a place in contemporary society?
  • Can opera move past its sexist, Eurocentric repertoire, and can it find an audience for challenging contemporary works?
  • Can composers create an opera that truly speaks to our time and to an audience beyond opera buffs?

Creating a contemporary opera that can appeal to a broad audience is as difficult an artistic challenge as there is. For such a work to be authentically fresh and thrillingly new, relatable and accessible, yet resonant and captivating is beyond most current composers’ ability.

For one thing, these works must navigate between the simplicities (and hummability) of popular music and the atonal, dissonant and hypercomplex (or minimalist) language of modernist classical music. Its music must soar.

An even greater challenge is addressing themes and emotions that go far beyond the everyday. Opera’s power lies in its ability to tap into the mythic and lay bare the depths of human emotion.

Opera’s great themes—love and passion, betrayal and revenge, power and corruption, fate and destiny, justice and injustice, identity and disguise, heroism and sacrifice, confinement and freedom, honor and duty, morality and redemption, madness and despair, and the supernatural and the demonic—are anything but ordinary or modest. They are epic.

Without infidelity, treachery, duplicity, intrigue and tragic loss, an opera is no more weighty or grand than a Broadway or movie musical—much as vocal technique and complex orchestration distinguish an opera’s score from the works of Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Its music must soar. The great arias are confessional, and operatic music must give voice to each character’s emotional essence.

A great work of opera must evoke sentiments, passions and sensations that contemporary society seems to have muted or repressed: the quest for the transcendent, the pursuit of redemption, the hunt for revenge, the longing for self-sacrifice. Contemporary relevance is not enough. Highly political works, like the CNN or movie-inspired Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Dead Man Walking, for all their intensity, will, I fear, be regarded as ephemeral once the current political moment ends—or, worse, be dismissed as agitprop.

Yet opera cannot thrive if it continues to live forever in the past. Without fresh, diverse and nontraditional voices, its audience will continue to dwindle. Can great works include slam poetry and non-Western musical styles? We will see.

Opera’s challenges resemble those facing higher ed—expenses rise faster than income and an inability to constrain costs—plus some others specific to the genre: audience, cultural relevance, competition, demographics, elitist reputation, Eurocentrism, language, length and pace, production costs, and tradition versus innovation.

The collapse of subscriptions, which accounted for fully half of ticket sales half a century ago, has made opera companies increasingly dependent on philanthropic contributions and individual ticket sales at the box office. This, in turn, accounts for a host of developments in the business of opera: the standardization of the repertoire, with a disproportionate share of productions from the 19th century; the reliance on extravagant, elaborate and enormously expensive productions like Aida to wow the audience; mounting deficits that have resulted in a shrinking number of operas performed; reliance on brand-name, superstar performers; and resistance to producing contemporary, experimental and avant-garde works.

As Rosanne Martorella, a cultural sociologist, put it nearly 40 years ago, opera’s answer to its audience problem was as simple as ABC: Aida, Boheme (or The Barber of Seville or Madame Butterfly) and Carmen (or Cosi fan tutti), plus Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor; Mozart’s Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro; Puccini’s Tosca; Verdi’s II Trovatore and Otello; and Wagner’s Die Walküre, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, and Tristan und Isolde.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then opera—perhaps like colleges—must innovate. At least in the case of opera, innovations do abound. At the opera house, you will see a much greater emphasis on theatrics and dramatic performance; greater creativity in lighting, staging and set design; liberal reinterpretations of scores; reworkings of classic and canonical works, often in contemporary settings; exciting site-specific productions; and renewed efforts at outreach and education.

Will brick-and-mortar colleges and universities and especially their humanities departments, mimic this inventiveness? I certainly hope so. Not, I trust, by diluting and attenuating what makes this education special, but in other ways—by making the education offered more personalized, immersive, active, experiential and relevant.

We know what to do, but as authoritative observers as wide-ranging as Nicholas Dirks, Brian Rosenberg and James Shulman argue, the problem lies in implementation.

We need to create an education more tailored to student interests and career goals. We might:

  • Consider a more modular approach to course offerings.
  • Offer more “co-learning” experiences, in which students and professors undertake research jointly.
  • Adopt a competency-based approach that seeks to bring all students to a minimal viable level of competency in essential fields.
  • Address urgent, timely social problems through an interdisciplinary lens.
  • Use simulations, gamification and various graphing, mapping, presentation, statistical and text analysis and visualization tools to deliver more engaging, hands-on learning experiences.
  • Institute blended delivery models that combine online and in-person learning to better accommodate diverse learning styles and provide the convenience of remote access while retaining the benefits of face-to-face interaction.
  • Expand opportunities for internships, co-ops, fieldwork, service learning, research projects and other real-world learning experiences.
  • Devote more class time to collaborative problem-solving, fostering a more participatory learning environment.
  • Provide more skills workshops, as well as more studio courses, maker spaces and field experiences where students can acquire and polish essential skills.
  • Integrate more global learning opportunities into the curriculum, including virtual exchange programs, international collaborations and less expensive short-term study abroad initiatives.
  • Make student services more responsive to individual needs by using data analytics to better understand student needs and target support and offering more holistic services that include academic advising, career counseling and mental health support.
  • Incorporate more entrepreneurship, civic and community engagement, and sustainability and social responsibility opportunities into the undergraduate experience.
  • Move beyond traditional exams and implement diverse assessment methods, including project-based assessments, portfolios, peer review and reflective exercises.

We should take these steps for the very reasons that opera companies need to innovate and experiment: to adapt to a radically shifting environment. We have it in our power to provide an education that is not only more engaging and effective but also more equitable and better attuned to the diverse needs of today’s student population.

In a society in which a college education has become a prerequisite for a secure, middle-class way of life, we have two choices: we can make a college credential easier to acquire, or we can make the experience more meaningful and impactful. I know which path I prefer.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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