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Seattle Opera brings the 'uncomfortable truth' of Malcolm X to the stage

caption: A performance of the opera "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" in Omaha.
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A performance of the opera "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" in Omaha.
Photo courtesy of Opera Omaha

Opera has always been filled with compelling characters that push societal norms.

Even so, most people today probably don’t think of opera as a particularly progressive artform.

That may be why an opera about Malcolm X has such a striking impact.

"To me he's a tragic hero," Anthony Davis, the composer of "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X," told KUOW arts and culture reporter Mike Davis.

"X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X," will have its West Coast premiere at the Seattle Opera this month. Originally staged in 1985, the production was revitalized by a new production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2023.

Davis said he first got the idea to write an opera about Malcolm X after watching his brother play the civil rights icon in the play "El Hajj Malik."

"He came backstage afterward," Davis remembered. "And he said, 'Well, you should think about doing a musical about Malcolm X because there's a parallel between Malcolm X's story and the development of jazz.'"

The score of "X" draws on musical elements found in the blues, jazz, and classical music.

Kenneth Kellogg, a bass opera singer, will be playing Malcolm X in the Seattle Opera's staging. Kellogg hopes that audience members will recognize the "uncomfortable truth" Malcolm X presented through his speeches and philosophy.

"In our political climate today, we're getting further and further away from the truth," Kellogg said. "And coming to see this opera, I hope we can steer ourselves back to just that uncomfortable nature of the thing that will make us better. Malcolm spoke to that, better than anyone I can think of, and this opera, I think, has that truth at its heart."

Listen to the full interview with composer Anthony Davis and opera singer Kenneth Kellogg by clicking the play button at the top of the page.

Tickets to "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" are available on Seattle Opera's website. The opera runs from Feb. 24 to March 9.

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