Hardened by anger at racism, personal tragedy, and a criminal lifestyle in his youth, Malcolm Little loses his sense of self and purpose. He discovers the Nation of Islam while serving a prison sentence and emerges as Malcolm X with an inner fire and a sense of purpose that took the world by storm. Come discover his life and times in X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X which is playing at the Orpheum Theater under the auspices of Opera Omaha.
While I’ve seen a few rock operas, this was my first experience at watching a true opera and it is definitely a very different style of performing. It’s a bit more stoic and less animated than traditional theatre. There’s definitely an element of acting, but it gets a bit trickier as nuancing a song is a touch harder than nuancing dialogue due to having to be able to do it on key. But there’s nothing like music to sweep you away to another world and this cast does a phenomenal job in taking you through the complex life of Malcolm X.
It assuredly takes a village to create an opera and that starts with getting the right music, words, and story together. This show has a mighty triumvirate in the forms of Anthony Davis, Thulani Davis, and Christopher Davis. Anthony Davis’ music crackles with an intensity and has the feel of traditional opera from the times of Wagner and Mozart, yet he can also contemporize it when it segues into a light, jazzy feel. Thulani Davis (librettist) and Christopher Davis (story author) create the structure and words of the tale and I admired the truly honest way they portrayed Malcolm X. They don’t try to romanticize him. They paint a realistic picture of who he was and the influences that shaped him. They even use actual quotations from Malcolm X to paint that real and true portrait.
Robert O’Hara does some amazing direction with the piece. His staging is so skillful and has some of the most precise placement of performers I have ever come across. Never was there a moment when I couldn’t see the face of each and every performer. He makes an opening meeting in the house of the Littles seem relaxed and welcoming. A scene in prison feels controlled and regimented, especially with the vision of iron bars separating the prisoners. O’Hara makes certain his actors are fueled with an intensity that just leaps out and grabs you by the throat and hits the emotional beats of the story with deadeye accuracy.
In opera, as in theatre, the value of an ensemble is key as they form the backbone of the staged world. Each was always in the moment and their beautiful voices added some heavenly harmonies to the show. But I’d like to especially cite the work of Charles Dennis whose presence is always felt as Young Malcolm Little. Outside from having to get the show up and running, Dennis also often pops up in scenes with his adult self as a reminder of innocence lost and, perhaps, regained after Malcolm X’s hajj. Dorse Brown, Christopher Jackson, Corde Young, Jay Staten, and Mikhail Calliste also form a Greek chorus to help move the story along with their lithe and exemplary dancing which was stunningly choreographed by Rickey Tripp. Whitney Morrison gives a haunting portrayal of Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, who succumbs to madness after the untimely death of her husband. You can just see her sense of life and self fade from her body as it sags and goes limp after the news of her husband’s passing.
I was blown away by the work and voice of Victor Robertson. Robertson shows some true versatility with his disparate performances of Street and Elijah Muhammad. As Street, Robertson oozes an oily charm as he takes Malcolm under his wing, but leads him down an ill path of drugs and crime. As Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, he exudes authority and an iron fist and woe betide any who disobey his orders. Robertson is blessed with an otherworldly tenor that can hit and sustain sonic high notes with an effortless ease.
Adam Richardson is a force to be reckoned with as Malcolm X. His powerful baritone is well suited to the serious and driven Muslim minister and activist. Richardson captures the intensity of Malcolm X well as he never smiles and rarely reacts to outside stimuli. By that I mean he never swallowed bait designed to get him angry. Malcolm X always believed in preaching the truth as he saw it and didn’t shy away from the consequences of doing so. Richardson presents a man truly committed to his cause and his ability to act with his eyes gives you a glimpse into Malcolm’s thought processes and feelings. You can see and feel his hurt when he is silenced by the Nation of Islam after speaking on JFK’s assassination. You understand his disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad when he learns of his less than strict adherence to the Law. And you can see his inner transformation and sense of peace after his hajj where he comes to believe that Sunni Islam is the key to true brotherhood.
Gil Rose’s conducting is right on the mark and his musicians are always precisely on point with the notes and power of the score. Clint Ramos has designed a seemingly simple set, yet there’s such detail about it. He uses a background stage for public talks, battered walls for street corners, and has a banner running across the top of the stage on which Yee Eun Nam is able to project images of the KKK, the names of racism victims, and flashes of lightning. Dede Ayite’s costumes are elegant and eye-catching from the zoot suits of Malcolm’s younger days to the simple dark suit he often wore to the suit, bowtie, and distinctive hat of Elijah Muhammad. Alex Jainchill’s lighting added that emotional je ne sais quoi to the opera especially with the softer focus on Malcolm X in his more contemplative moments.
Omaha was fortunate to host the Midwest premiere of this opera and the New York Met better ready itself because this opera is going to go nova and have people coming in droves. You still have one last chance to see it locally before it heads out, but act fast as the Sunday show is nearly sold out.
The final show of Opera Omaha’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X takes place on Nov 6 at 2pm at the Orpheum Theater. Tickets range from $19-$99 and can be purchased at Ticket Omaha or by calling the Box Office 90 minutes before showtime at 402-345-0606 or 866-434-8587. The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.
Photo by Opera Omaha-Tom Grady