Malcolm in Snapshots 

Oakland Opera Theater successfully tackles Anthony Davis' X.

You could hardly ask for a more operatic subject than Malcolm X. Opera lends itself more to huge themes and fiery passions than it does to small and subtle, and there's nothing small about Malcolm's heroic journey from youthful excess to fiery leader to exile, spiritual awakening and untimely death. Lo and behold, composer Anthony Davis made it an opera in 1986 (six years before Spike Lee's film), just as he'd later write operas about the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the Amistad slave uprising. His cousin, the poet Thulani Davis, wrote the libretto.

Twenty years later, Oakland Opera Theater, which focuses entirely on 20th-and 21st-century operas, has finally given the Bay Area its first look at Davis' X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Director Michael Mohammed's staging is minimal, with no set to speak of, but a three-tier stage with the chorus seated up and down a series of steps. The light board wasn't working at the performance I attended, so the lighting was simpler than intended.

The chorus is omnipresent in Davis' music, so characters emerge from it to take part in the action and then return to their seats. It's a somber performance, with almost a ritual quality, but it isn't entirely a static, stand-and-sing concert staging either. I mean yes, there's a fair amount of that, but the drama behind it also comes through in the performances.

Joseph Wright's rich baritone aside — although it's hard to ignore — in his performance you can see Malcolm coming into his own as a leader, the hesitancy of his first speeches dissolving into a fiery and commanding presence. Duana Demus is haunting as mother Louise, waiting for word of her husband who's been killed in a suspicious accident. Her eyes stare fearfully and her powerful soprano voice sings of past scrapes with the Klan. Tim Miller makes a charming rogue as the craps-shooting Street, who woos young Malcolm into the hustler's life in a manner reminiscent of the fox and cat in Pinocchio. As Elijah Muhammad, Darron Flagg's palpable nervousness when Malcolm seems to be getting too big for his britches is as affecting as the vocal acrobatics in his tenor part.

There's a distinct jazz influence in the piece that either adds melody and rhythm to a jumble of stabbing staccato notes or inserts a hectic air of urban cacophony into some particularly dramatic scenes. What's impressive is how smoothly the streams of jazz, operatic arias and 20th-century dissonance — doo-wop vocals, blurting horns, chanted religious phrases and hypnotic minimalist repetition — interweave without sounding either at odds or watered down. It's a credit not only to Davis' idiosyncratic style but to the versatility of musical director Deirdre McClure and the eight-person orchestra.

A cautionary note: The opera doesn't so much tell Malcolm's story as riff on it. His life is shown in tiny impressionistic glimpses that don't make much sense if you don't already know the context. Who or where people are isn't often stated. The opera hopscotches down the long road from child Malcolm Little to hustler Detroit Red to Nation of Islam preacher Malcolm X to Orthodox Muslim convert El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz to the assassination, but how we get from one step to the next is often a mystery. It helps to know exactly what the sound and fury signify.


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