Complex civil rights leader the focus of Seattle Opera performance

Feb 23, 2024, 1:00 PM | Updated: 1:27 pm

Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, center) with members of the Seattle Opera ensemble of "X: The Life and ...

Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, center) with members of the Seattle Opera ensemble of "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X." (Photo: Sunny Martini)

(Photo: Sunny Martini)

Saturday is opening night for Seattle Opera’s production of “X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X.” It’s a revival of an opera that is as complex and challenging as the man at its center.

With its strong jazz undertones, the music is intricate, complex, and deliberately improvisational.

Composer Anthony Davis told KIRO Newsradio that although his opera first debuted in 1986, “The idea of what a piece of music is – the fundamental idea, for me – a piece of music is not something fixed, it’s something that can transform.”

And it’s perhaps befitting a story of a civil rights icon whose own life changed significantly in his brief 39 years.

The opera touches on key moments of Malcolm’s life, including family tragedy, crime, and a stint in prison where Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam and began using X as his last name.

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He eventually had a falling out with the Nation and was assassinated in 1965.

“His life and his life’s journey is operatic in itself,” said bass-baritone Kenneth Kellogg, who portrays Malcolm X in the opera.

“The score- it’s difficult. It’s one that captures the complexity of Malcolm X’s life. But for me, I love playing characters that have the various layers of complexity to them.”

Director Robert O’Hara said there are challenges beyond the score in the opera, referring – again – to the life it is telling.

“Every performance, we are killing a black man at the end,” said O’Hara, “and somehow that has to be recognized.”

It is a hard truth, but one he’s willing to help tell.

“Because it’s what I do as an artist. I go into places, and I interact with humanity, and I hold a microscope up to the human condition. And sometimes the human condition is ugly,” O’Hara explained.

Kellogg added, “I think the echoes of what Malcolm X stood for reverberated through the Black Lives Matter movement, they reverberated through Hip Hop they reverberated through a lot of the fight of people who’ve been oppressed.”

“It’s always a battle in America,” said Davis. “It’s a battle to tell our stories and also to be ready to confront the challenges we’re going to face in the future.”

Though Malcolm X died decades ago, these African American artists say his life story remains as relevant as the opera that dares to tell it.

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter for KIRO Newsradio.


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Complex civil rights leader the focus of Seattle Opera performance