Gets Real: Seattle Opera making history with production of ‘X-The Life and Times of Malcom X’

SEATTLE — Seattle Opera is making history staging its first opera ever composed by an African-American.

Now X-The Life and Times of Malcom X is changing the face of this European art form.

When the curtain rises at Seattle Opera Saturday night, it will be a landmark moment: an opera about a controversial civil rights icon written nearly 40 years ago by an African-American composer.

X is finally being embraced by the opera world.

Malcolm X has long been a polarizing figure in the struggle for civil rights even for some African-Americans. That made him a perfect subject for Pulitzer prize winning composer Anthony Davis.

“I felt compelled to do it,” said Davis. “I felt it was something I had to do. And I felt a real responsibility for it, you know, telling Malcolm’s story.”

It is a story that had never been told on the operatic stage, until 1986.

What made him write it? he was asked.

“Well, it just seemed Malcolm was a bigger-than-life figure,” Davis said. “He was a mythic, iconic figure. He died tragically. He’s a tragic hero in my mind. He had so many transformations in his life. And I really thought that story needed to be told as an opera.”

In a sense, the life of Malcolm X was operatic. A son and brother, street hustler and cell mate, a husband and father, a Black man whose brilliance shone through as he adopted a new religion and a new name, twice, all while fighting for a people oppressed in the land of their birth.

But for Davis, there was something more.

“In effect, as Black people, we killed Malcolm X ourselves,” Davis said. “It was African Americans who were the assassins. I mean, it wasn’t James Earl Ray, some delusional white person, who did it. It wasn’t the Ku Klux Klan. It was our own people. How could we be driven to the point where we would kill one of our great, great leaders in 1965?”

“I’m a fan of Malcolm X,” said Kenneth Kellogg. “So, there’s a certain level of admiration and respect and, I guess, years of informed decisions when it came to portraying him.”

Bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg sings the title role, which is actually written in a higher register more befitting a baritone.

“I’ve done it a couple other times where the role is so compelling that I’m willing to stretch myself, as an artist and as a singer,” said Kellogg, chuckling. “And this is one of those roles. Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s Malcolm X. It’s Malcolm X. To me, he is one of the most intelligent and influential men we’ve had in American history.”

A history that is making history in the Emerald City.

“Trying to break barriers in terms of music, you know,” said Anthony Davis. “For the vision of what opera can be in America. Our own form of opera that’s different from European opera.”

A difference, gracing the Seattle Opera stage.

X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X opens Saturday night at Seattle Opera. It runs through Mar. 9.