The epigraph of Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” is a quote from an interview in which, asked about the cost of freedom, Malcolm responds, “The cost of freedom is death.”
That tension — between hope and reality, between liberation and limitation — courses through a new production of “X” that opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, in the work’s company premiere. This staging dreams of a better future, with a towering Afrofuturist spaceship that, at the beginning, appears to be calling Malcolm X home. But the beam-me-up rays of light are pulled away to reveal a floating proscenium, gilded at the edges and decorated with a landscape mural. It is a replica of the podium at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, where he was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965.
As an outlook it’s unsettling, but true to Malcolm X. In his autobiography, narrated to Alex Haley and posthumously published, he recounts the killing of his father and says: “It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.” And since “X” premiered, in 1986, there has been only more violence, a fact lost neither on the work’s creators — Davis, following a story by his brother, Christopher Davis, and a libretto by their cousin Thulani Davis — nor on this production’s director, Robert O’Hara, who at times treats the surface of the spaceship as a memorial, projecting the names of Black victims onto it.
The list covers decades — the Rev. George W. Lee, James Byrd Jr., Breonna Taylor, to mention just a few — and it’s an unfamiliar sight at the Met, where complex, current political realities rarely make their way onstage. But “X,” Davis’s first opera, has arrived there as part of a programming wave that inevitably speaks to contemporary life: After the murder of George Floyd, the Met announced that it would present its first work by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” It wasn’t long before “X” was in the pipeline, too.