“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” came to life as a family affair in the mid-1980s. Composer Anthony Davis wrote the music and weaved in various influences, from the grand mythos of Richard Wagner to the cosmic utopianism of Sun Ra. The composer’s brother Christopher Davis outlined the story, and his cousin Thulani Davis — by then an established poet and journalist at the Village Voice — wrote the libretto. It played to a handful of sold-out audiences at Lincoln Center and attracted the likes of film director Spike Lee, who would release his own Malcolm X biopic starring Denzel Washington in 1992.
But until recently, Thulani Davis had assumed she would never see another production of “X” in her lifetime. When she learned in early spring 2020 that the forward-thinking opera director Yuval Sharon was interested in a revival of “X,” she was “genuinely startled,” she said. “I didn’t think opera houses were going to be ready to embrace it.”
First, there was the fact that X’s politics were too discomfiting for some. “The language is very frank and confrontational, in the sense of confronting dialogues that are still going on in this country,” she said.
There was also the issue of hiring: Most opera companies didn’t have enough Black singers to fill out the cast. “Probably around 300 people auditioned or tried to . . . and their only steady work was ‘Show Boat’ and ‘Porgy and Bess,’” she said, noting that these were the only shows for which companies were willing to hire extra Black singers.
Now, “X” is poised to embark on a grand tour of American opera houses. On May 14, a new Afrofuturism-influenced production of “X” opened at Detroit Opera, formerly Michigan Opera Theatre, directed by the Tony-nominated dramaturg Robert O’Hara. The next several years will take that production to Opera Omaha (the city of X’s birth), Seattle Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera, where it will be only the second opera by a Black composer to be performed in company history.
And before the opera goes anywhere else, it’s coming to the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner, just 1 mile from the house where Malcolm X spent his teenage years living with his half-sister Ella Little-Collins.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s June 17 semi-staged performance of “X” will be the first installment in the orchestra’s “As Told By: History, Race and Justice on the Opera Stage” series, which last fall outlined a road map to present one opera about Black historical figures by Black composers each year until 2026. The principal singers from the Detroit Opera production are all scheduled to reprise their roles in Boston, including bass-baritone and Harvard University graduate Davóne Tines in the title role.
Though Anthony Davis’s music may be new to most Boston audiences, Tines is a familiar face around town. He’s a founding member of American Modern Opera Company, which germinated in Cambridge, and he spearheaded the creation of and starred in “The Black Clown” in 2018 at American Repertory Theatre, which expanded Langston Hughes’s poem of the same name into an hourlong music theater piece about Black life in America.
“In Davóne’s own performances, he tries to engage his audiences with poetry and speaking as well as singing. And in the opera . . . Thulani kind of mirrored how Malcolm would speak in public,” said Davis. “You’re going to see a full-blown character in Davóne’s portrayal of Malcolm.”
Serendipitously, “X” had been on BMOP artistic director Gil Rose’s radar for several years. He and Davis had been bandying about the idea of doing one of his operas, and when Rose decided to fast-track one for performance after Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2020, he had no idea that a revival of “X” was already brewing in Detroit. “Yuval and I connected,” said Rose, “and we found ways to cooperate.”
The day after the one-night-only performance of “X,” the cast and orchestra will head back to the Strand and embark on several days of recording sessions for an album of the full opera on BMOP/sound, with a scheduled release in September. It will be the first commercial recording of “X” since one released in 1992 (it has since gone out of print).
O’Hara’s sets and staging won’t be traveling to the Strand, but the Boston audience for “X” will be able to take in video performances of original dances and music by Boston Arts Academy students inspired by Malcolm X, created through a partnership with educational initiative Castle of our Skins.
“It was an experiential way [for the students] to experience history . . . and for them to understand that this history isn’t at arm’s length,” said Castle of our Skins founder Ashleigh Gordon, who regularly plays viola with BMOP. “It’s very much related to where they physically are, inherent here in Boston. And how they currently live is a result of this history.”
It’s quite a change from the atmosphere around the 1986 premiere, which was heralded with The New York Times headline “Malcolm X — Hero to Some, Racist to Others — Is Now the Stuff of Opera.”
“The FBI and CIA felt he was such a threat because of his political reach . . . he was probably the most surveilled figure in American history,” said Anthony Davis. “You can’t imagine Black Lives Matter without Malcolm X. Black Lives Matter wouldn’t make sense without Malcolm X.”
X: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MALCOLM X
June 17, 8 p.m. Strand Theatre. www.bmop.org
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story about “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” misstated the date of the Boston performance. The opera will be performed on June 17 at the Strand Theatre. The Globe regrets the error.