DETROIT — As the orchestra of the Detroit Opera tuned itself for a recent rehearsal, the outline of a vast spacecraft loomed over the pit.
Underneath that ship, you could see a contrasting image: a pastoral painting, of a mountain range, with a river slicing a path between peaks, redolent of the backdrop behind Malcolm X as he spoke at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on Feb. 21, 1965 — moments before his assassination.
Already, before a single note had been drilled of Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” — which opens on Saturday at the Detroit Opera House here and will travel to the Metropolitan Opera in 2023 — a conversation was in progress between imaginative and historical modes of thought.
As the conductor Kazem Abdullah began to lead the company’s orchestra through the overture to the work — a civil rights bio-opera rarely revived since its historic 1986 premiere at New York City Opera — a similar conversation unfolded in the score. Its layers of rising figures in ostinato patterns, quickly changing meters, percussive passages of nearly breezy swing feel, along with others possessed of stark calamity, call to mind elements of musical history in unexpected ways.
That’s fitting for Davis, 71, who as an undergraduate at Yale University in the late 1960s and early ’70s, studied opera scores by Wagner, Berg and Strauss — but also attended concerts by cutting-edge jazz artists. Later, he was a witness to some early rehearsals of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” while, at the same time, playing with Rashied Ali, a drummer most famous for his work with John Coltrane.
The score for “X” traffics in multiple modernisms. One scene, in which a social worker visits Malcolm’s boyhood home and deems it chaotic, is driven by complex polyrhythms. Yet a pianist is also instructed to play tone clusters behind an improvised trombone solo. Later, when a jailed Malcolm first hears about the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, Davis writes dissonant harmony that serves as a callback to a prior scene of trauma, while also working as a questioning, ambient premonition of the protagonist’s murder.
“Some composers you can hear everything as one line,” Davis said. “With me, it’s always competing different voices in it.”
THIS PRODUCTION is a first for Robert O’Hara, the Tony Award-nominated director of “Slave Play,” who had not worked in opera until “X.” In an interview during a rehearsal break, he said that the idea of the spaceship “is that it comes from the future, that we’re being told the Malcolm X story by people who are beyond us.”
After that day’s rehearsal, Davis said, “it’s so funny because I like science fiction, and I wrote a science fiction opera” — “Under the Double Moon,” from 1989 — “but I never thought of ‘X’ like that.”
In its opening scenes, “X” introduces a Black community in Michigan as it processes the news of the killing of the Rev. Earl Little — Malcolm’s father, and a preacher in the Marcus Garvey mold. During an aria for Louise, Malcolm’s newly widowed mother, she recalls local Ku Klux Klan terrorism on the eve of her son’s birth. Rings of fire engulf the surface of the spaceship.
A new staging like this, Davis said, can represent “how people in the future will see it, see Malcolm and see the whole story.” And it also offers a new way to hear the music. “It’s not about this completely realistic portrayal,” Davis said, before comparing the work to magic realism.
But to O’Hara, the spaceship means even more than that. It is a symbolic critique of the opera world, which rarely takes stock of Black composers and only earnestly came around on programming their music after the murder of George Floyd and a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The Met, the largest performing arts institution in the United States, didn’t program its first work by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” until this season.
“We are actually saying this space cannot hold the opera; we have to crash and take over the space,” O’Hara said. “It costs us something to tell the story in which at the end a Black man is killed. And it should cost you something to witness it.”
Many people are likely to witness it. After the new staging’s premiere in Detroit, it will travel Opera Omaha (the city where Malcolm X was born) and the Met, as well as Seattle Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago — all of them partners in what has become a coast-to-coast coproduction.
“X” has never been played so widely. And interest in it could pay off in more visibility for Davis himself, who may be the least well known of the great living American composers, but whose career is ripe for attention and reassessment.
DAVIS ALSO HAS roots as a pianist. Thulani Davis — the poet and scholar, as well as Anthony Davis’s cousin, who wrote the librettos for “X” and his 1997 opera “Amistad” — recalled a time in their 20s when she realized that he was building a formidable reputation in jazz clubs.
“I would go to the Tin Palace, and Cecil Taylor might be standing at the bar,” she said. “One night Anthony was playing. And Cecil’s a very tough critic. At some point, he leaned over to Anthony and said: ‘You don’t have to play blah-blah — a famous pianist from the ’40s — you don’t have to play him.’”
She continued: “If I was Anthony that would have scared me to death. But Anthony actually has a lot of nerve, and he carried on. I later realized, during the evening, that Cecil respected him and thought he was a good player, or he wouldn’t have said anything.”
The trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, an early mentor of Anthony Davis’s, said in a recent phone interview that he regarded “X,” “Amistad” and “Lear on the 2nd Floor” — a riff on Shakespeare — as works on par with John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” one of the most important and widely known American operas of the past half-century.
“They cover issues that are vital and important to American history,” Smith said. “But also, if America is to survive — and that is a big question, because no one knows whether it will survive past the next 10 or 15 years — but if it is to survive, then his work is critical as a motivation and inspiration for that level of survival.”
That said, Davis is not the best champion of his works from the past, as he admitted during a recent interview. Nine of his essential composer-performer albums on the Gramavision label from the 1980s and early ’90s — including the first commercial one of “X” — are now out of print.
“I was attracted to the idea, at one point, of being this ‘underground’ person,” he said. “Doing this work and not everyone sees the whole thing. It’s just funny because, in Europe, I was touring — and they have no clue that I do opera.”
It has also been a long time since Davis listened to some of his earliest recordings that do remain in print, like “Past Lives,” from 1978. On that album, he covered music by Thelonious Monk and debuted some of his own compositions — sounding at times like someone eager to inherit the piano chair in Charles Mingus’s group from Don Pullen, another avant-gardist with a showman’s flair.
During his early development as a keyboardist, Davis studied Monk and Bud Powell, as well as Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. As a classical composer, he didn’t silo off that part of his life. “Categories can imprison you, really stifle creativity,” he said. “I like to imagine they don’t exist.”
DAVIS’S CAPACIOUS STYLE reached a new height in his 2019 opera “The Central Park Five,” based on the true story of the Black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of attacking a white female jogger, which earned him the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for music. Here, Davis’ modernist classical language collided with references to Duke Ellington and Parliament-Funkadelic alike. But these weren’t tips of the hat for their own sake; the music always shifts in service of the story.
In “Central Park,” as the teenagers are caught in rhetorical webs spun by ambitious investigators and prosecutors — not to mention a headline-seeking real estate developer named Donald Trump — the boys’ access to that vast library of musical references is taken away from the score just as quickly as their liberty is revoked in the plot. The sweet blend of their communal voices, which Davis thought of as the a cappella group Take 6 as arranged by Gil Evans, is replaced with more angular music of relentless interrogation.
A sizzling new production of that opera, directed by Nataki Garrett and conducted by Abdullah at Portland Opera this spring, is streaming on demand from that company’s website through May 20. Elsewhere, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will give its own semi-staged concert performance of “X” on June 17, conducted by Gil Rose — a longtime champion of Davis’s music — in Boston.
Between the prolifically documented Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Met’s Live in HD series and album output, we’re all but guaranteed to see multiple new recordings of “X.” But what about the rest of his catalog? While other former Gramavision artists like La Monte Young and Jamaaladeen Tacuma have reclaimed the rights to their 1980s-era recordings — making them newly available on the digital platform Bandcamp — Davis’s in-print discography remains frustratingly slender. (Most urgently in need of reissues, beyond “X,” are the chamber music of “Hemispheres” and the violin concerto on the “The Ghost Factory”.)
Davis acknowledged that, for a long stretch, he hadn’t prioritized recordings — either potential ones or past efforts. “My focus has been more on the operas, to develop my own musical language,” he said. “But that certainly comes from all my experiences playing creative music. That’s been a huge part of that.”
About his development of that language: a pair of chamber dramas from recent decades — “Lear on the 2nd Floor,” and “Lilith,” a bawdy, biblical operetta — display a peculiar and exciting new aspect of Davis’s art: namely, writing experimental show tunes.
The first hint that Davis had a Broadway side to him may have come with the satirical aria “If I Were a Black Man,” sung by a white Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist character in “Tania,” Davis’s comedic opera about Patty Hearst, from 1992. Once an outlier in his tool kit, these unruly show tunes have developed into a thoroughgoing fascination.
If you watch a YouTube video of a “Lear” production from the University of California, San Diego — where Davis has taught since 1998 — you might be dismayed to see that you’re only one of about 1,500 viewers. And the SoundCloud playlist of “Lilith” indicates that only a few dozen listeners have sampled it.
But that could change. With Detroit Opera’s revival of “X,” we may be on the cusp of a broader reappraisal of Davis’s body of work. We certainly should be, at least. As O’Hara said in an interview: “I just think that it’s Anthony’s time. It’s been past due for his time.”