Thirty-five years ago, a composer and pianist named Anthony Davis made his first foray into the opera world with “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” Shortly afterward, he visited the United Kingdom, where he was interviewed by a BBC reporter.
“He asked me, ‘Oh, what’s this opera with a strange title?’ ” said Davis in a Zoom interview, barely concealing a grin. “‘How did you come up with this idea of Malcolm the 10th?’ I just started rolling, laughing, going crazy. But I said, wow, they don’t know.”
That wouldn’t be true today, said Davis. From Black communities in London to hip-hop artists in Brazil, anywhere the African diaspora has stretched, “Malcolm is an icon, and [people] understand who he is and what he means.”
Now, “X” is coming to New England for the first time along with four other operas by Black American composers, as Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera launch an ambitious new multiyear initiative titled “As Told By: History, Race and Justice on the Opera Stage.” The first one up, “X,” is scheduled for June 17, 2022, at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, a stone’s throw from the Roxbury house where the activist spent his teenage years. In addition to live performances, the operas will also be recorded and released on BMOP’s in-house label, BMOP/sound.
This far-ranging project celebrates both the musical and cultural importance of these operas, said BMOP and Odyssey Opera founder and artistic director Gil Rose at a press conference earlier this month. The genesis of the project grew from William Grant Still’s opera “Troubled Island,” which premiered in 1949 but did not receive many further performances. “It has not been heard in full, in public, in 73 years,” said Rose. “And I thought, wow. That opera needs to be brought back. It must have something to say.”
While all of the operas focus on a Black freedom fighter of history, they span eight decades and a variety of musical styles. After “X” comes Nkeiru Okoye’s “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom,” which will receive its full orchestral premiere with this 2023 performance. It will be followed by Still’s Haitian Revolution tale “Troubled Island” in 2024, to be performed in partnership with New York City Opera, and 2025 brings the first performance of Ulysses Kay’s “Frederick Douglass” since its 1991 premiere in New Jersey. Finally, the world premiere of Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Bridge” is scheduled for 2026: a BMOP commission about Martin Luther King Jr.’s years in Boston.
“It seems like a long time away, but in opera terms, that’s tomorrow,” said Rose.
In the 25 years since its founding, BMOP has made its name on not just performing an eclectic spread of 20th- and 21st-century orchestral music, but also in releasing a veritable font of recordings. BMOP/sound routinely releases five or six recordings per year; several of these have been nominated for Grammy Awards, and a 2019 release of Tobias Picker’s opera “Fantastic Mr. Fox” won Best Opera Recording at last year’s Grammys. The orchestra was recognized with a special achievement award at the Gramophone Magazine Classical Music Awards earlier this month.
Davis, a genre-blending composer and pianist who picked up the Pulitzer Prize last year for his opera “The Central Park Five,” is familiar with BMOP’s work already. The orchestra released a 2014 portrait CD featuring three works including “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” which was performed earlier this month by the New York Philharmonic.
“I love working with Gil. He’s a great conductor, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is great to work with,” Davis said in a Zoom interview from New York, where he was in town for the Philharmonic performances.
Half a lifetime has elapsed for Davis, now 70, since the 1986 premiere of “X,” which he created in collaboration with his playwright cousin, Thulani Davis, who wrote the libretto. He now sees the score as “the culmination of a whole period … kind of summing up where I was at 35,” he said.
The 2022 performance will feature a newly revised score, but the essential structure of the opera remains the same. Because he incorporated his own jazz performance group into the ensemble as improvisers, some of the music was written with their strengths in mind — and several members of that original group are planning to return for this performance, including drummer Pheeroan akLaff and clarinetist J.D. Parran. The full cast has not been announced yet, but bass-baritone Davóne Tines will star as Malcolm X, after singing the same role at Michigan Opera Theatre in May.
The scale of the project isn’t limited to the concert hall and recording studio either; the initiative is being guided by a 16-member advisory council of community leaders assembled by Joyce Linehan, a lifelong Dorchester resident who worked as chief of policy for former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh.
“It was going to be really important that BMOP wasn’t just parachuting into a neighborhood and presenting a particular work, but really trying to put down some roots,” said Linehan in a phone interview. “And the best way to do something like that, as I learned from my time at City Hall, is to gather some smart people around a table and figure out the best way to go about it.”
L’Merchie Frazier, the director of education at the Museum of African American History in Boston, is one of those people at the table, and she thinks that opera can be made more attractive to communities that haven’t historically been included. “Respect for the art form itself has to be built. This is not automatic,” she said in a phone interview.
As a storyteller and poet herself, Frazier believes that vocabulary is key to creating new associations. “Opera has been pricey, traditionally, and marketed very differently than [what’s marketed] to the community that may be within a stone’s throw of the opera house.” The word “opera,” she says, “really does define the music itself,” but the word “story” may be more immediately relatable to people.
BMOP has already laid the groundwork for school-based programs centered around the “As Told By” operas, through a partnership with Boston-based chamber music series Castle of our Skins. Frazier also sees opportunities beyond the classroom to appeal to younger and more racially diverse audiences, citing the mega-hit musical “Hamilton” as one example.
“That show, and the marketing and branding for it, is a story told differently than the original dominant narrative may have been positioned,” she said. “I think it all depends on the relationships that are made with the venues and the community, and how accessible they are.”
It’s already certain that with these performances, the operas will become accessible to a whole new generation of listeners — and then some. After the record label that produced the only commercial recording of “X” so far folded, Davis had to resort to second hands and bootlegs to have copies of his own work. “I find them discarded from libraries, or something,” he said. “I’m very excited to do a new version with a new generation of singers.”