A Plurality of Traditions: Anthony Davis and the Social Justice Opera

By Thomas LarsonOctober 17, 2020

A Plurality of Traditions: Anthony Davis and the Social Justice Opera
ANTHONY DAVIS, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his opera The Central Park Five, is a composer with a great future behind him. Five is his eighth opera, and during those labors, spanning four decades, he’s found the time and talent to write orchestral pieces and music for plays, to record solo piano albums, to gig widely, and to make records with his group, Episteme. Under the microscope, Davis, who is 68 and a professor at the University of California at San Diego, reveals a rare strain of the American composer’s DNA, a synthesis of the diasporic music of African descendants and the uncompromising voice of contemporary opera.

Fresh out of Yale and into New York City in 1977, Davis began to explore and reimagine jazz and composition, which he simmered with themes of social justice, à la his equally subversive forefather, Charles Mingus. Another primal influence was the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — havoc specialists, with roots in the 1960s, for whom live improvisation has been the gold standard. Yet Davis dislikes the “jazz” label. He prefers what he calls “a plurality of traditions,” an eclectic assortment of mentors from Wagner to Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky to Anthony Braxton.

Critics label Davis’s style free jazz, avant-garde, modern post-bebop, or, if you like, simply postmodern. But such tags tell only a partial story (music is better heard than described). Davis regularly shifts among odd-metered rhythms, quick-changing instrumental textures, so that an inconsistency of style becomes his consistency, achieving what composer George E. Lewis calls “a creolized, cosmopolitan new music for the 21st century.”

Listen to the sonic panorama, rapturous weirdness, exotic percussion, and pulsed and syncopated rhythms of Anthony Davis: Epistēmē (1981), a 10-member roundtable in bent and brilliant kaleidoscopic moods. Davis’s instrumental work often wanders, pushing an aesthetic of disconnection and placelessness via ear-stretching improvisation. This is a standard method of new music — to transgressively challenge listeners — and he repurposes this approach to his thematic advantage in his operas.

Davis’s first major opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, premiered at the New York City Opera in 1986 and remains, Davis says, “the company’s most popular contemporary opera ever.” At the end of the first act, Malcolm, as Detroit Red, sings a trenchant aria, accusatory and self-reflective, as he’s paddy-wagoned off to jail. The aria addresses a kind of clueless audience: “You want the story, but you don’t want to know. My truth is you’ve been on me a very long time, meaner than I can say. As long as I’ve been living you’ve had your foot on me, always pressing.” That foot belongs to the white devil who has tormented Malcolm, his birth family, and his brothers and sisters. On May 25, 2020, that foot transformed into the knee pressed by another white devil into George Floyd’s neck — a murder eerily forecast in Detroit Red’s salient declaration.

Opera’s polyphonic form removes composers from the safe harbors of non-vocal music, imposing the demands of multisensory spectacle. An opera narratively reconfigures a mythic tale or historical event using the emotive means of orchestra, singers, and choruses, all managed by a stage director. In this contestatory realm, a composer must center a protagonist whose character and fate is often predetermined — for example, by political loyalty, like Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, or by moral consciousness, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Davis is born to this task. His works about African American protagonists offer something new in political drama: a nonclassical design whose bruising roughness owes much to blues and jazz idioms, conjoining a referentially rich music with violent subject matter. Pushing into opera’s white domain, Davis inscribes Black lives and their fraught history, fusing Africanist and European rhythms and voicings, and ingeniously reprocessing elements of our culture’s heritage, from Delta blues guitarists to second-line brass bands to purple-robed gospel choirs.

This stylistic counterpoint is nothing new. It echoes W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness, the idea that Blacks in Eurocentric societies see themselves both as their oppressors see them and as they actually are — that is, free from such regard. A racialized history dramatized in opera rightly insists on a music that has already voiced that history. Yet such graceful fusion is a rare find in a composer.


X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X begins with the murder of Malcolm’s father, Reverend Earl Little, and ends with a gun pointed at X’s head, at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. The murderers are white devils (supremacists) who throw Earl in front of a bus and hired assassins of the Nation of Islam, another band of devils beset by jealousy and fratricide, who shoot X. Earl and Malcolm are sacrificed, devoured for speaking up. Davis’s rhythmizing of Black urban life dramatizes the time in between the events — Malcom knew this life firsthand in the streets and clubs of Detroit and Harlem of the 1930s and ’40s.

The 90-second overture to X embodies a micro-drama of 20th-century music, shifting from raging chords of expressionist dissonance (B-flat/A-flat sounded together) to a surreal jazz shuffle, as ironic as it is volatile. Next, Davis lays down the track of the score’s locust-like drive, “using ostinatos” like other composers “use leitmotifs” (the quotations here and below are from a phone interview I conducted with Davis in August 2020). That drive includes metrical and accentual shifts and percussive eruptions, which recur and propel the opera, the singers, and the choruses, amounting to a sinister sensibility that lurks on the periphery, only to rush in at times, sirens blaring.

Indicative of the disruption is a 5/4 wobble that accompanies the meetings of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, a community ensemble with an expatriate theme: “No more ‘darkie,’ no more ‘Rastus,’ no more ‘nigga,’ when we see Africa.” Then, in the middle of Act I, Malcolm is recruited by Street, who — in a song full of parodic brag — blends Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and a risqué vaudevillian: “You need a zoot suit, a conk, and a pad.” Malcolm follows him right into prison and Muslim conversion.

The instrumentation for these musical flip-flops (on the 1992 Gramavision recording) is for an opera orchestra and a 14-member ensemble of improvisers. For the singers (and bodies in motion), Davis exploits swing-era figures, a progressive Ellington riff-machine, a scat solo, a lusty trombone commentary with plunger, alternating eight- and 16-bar blues forms. One dance sequence is polymetric heaven: a nine-pulse rhythmic pattern alternates with an 11-pulse pattern, Gamelan-style, with free improv above it, minimally anti-minimal. What this looks like staged with gyrating flesh must be phenomenal.

The familiar trajectory of Malcolm’s itinerancy ensues: six years in prison, ray-beamed devotion to Elijah Muhammad, disillusionment with him as a false idol, pilgrimage to Mecca, spiritual enlightenment, and death by assassination at 39. Declamatory arias, with a kind of stand-your-ground insistence, and wary duos between Malcolm (baritone) and Elijah (tenor) alternate with choral set pieces expressing X’s ever-renewed self-consciousness. The irony is that, each time he’s liberated, he must renegotiate his identity with others who glorify his politics and stifle his sensitivity.

At one point, a Bitches Brew–like wall of improv interrupts the story — as if the characters, to keep going, need a recharge of Davis’s soulful elixir. (No opera I’ve heard has as much polyrhythmic discourse as X does, with a different musical portraiture for each of Malcolm’s turns: kid, hoodlum, prisoner, convert, El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.) Ceaselessly creative, Davis keeps the opera chugging toward his subject’s destiny. Only a few brief moments are given to his character’s internalization, and the rough road forward is animated by an infectiously socializing backbeat, a kind of man-community love story.

Until, that is, Elijah ousts Malcolm — aided by his (honest) indiscretion after President Kennedy’s killing: a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” He leaves for Mecca, welcomes a new name, and refines his direction — his lifelong struggle for social justice redeemed, it seems, via the Islamic faith. El-Shabazz blossoms in his departing aria, disclosing to himself that he’s more than a race man. A muted trumpet searches for its voice in a befogged coastline of dissonant woodwinds, wandering strings, and a vibraphone ostinato, and the man’s self-aware vulnerability is just as quickly lost.


Thirty-three years separate X from last year’s The Central Park Five. In between — alongside some 20 recordings of Davis’s piano/ensemble inventions, including collaborations with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and flutist James Newton — are six operas: the chamber pieces, Lilith (2009) and Lear on the Second Floor (2012), and four full-scale productions: Under the Double Moon (1989), Tania (1992), Wakonda’s Dream (2007), and Amistad (1997/2008).

The science-fiction opera Under the Double Moon puts a pair of psychically endowed and freedom-seeking interracial twins on a distant flooded planet, their special powers set to relieve an evil empress of her planetary reign. In Davis’s soundtrack, electronically voiced and traditionally sung, the nether regions of underwater and abovewater beings come alive via Balinese dance rhythms, shadow puppet–style. In Tania, Davis goes surreal, trapping the abducted heiress Patty Hearst in her bedroom for the entire opera. In the bedroom and out, Patty/Tania and cast skewer the media coverage of her kidnapping, depicting it as a fractured fairy tale — her Mom and Dad turn into Betty Ford and Fidel Castro, respectively, and a white SLA rebel who lacks African blood sings “If Only I Were a Black Man” (a takeoff on Tevye), among other follies. There’s a farrago of musical bumps and grinds, oscillating between Schoenbergian expressionism and a Latin mambo house band.

Wakonda’s Dream opens with paper, wind, and bird sounds, then layers in Native American flute, war yelps, tone clusters, and sung glissandi held on high pitches. Much of the score possesses this character. The modern-day story unfolds as Jason, a Native boy seer, links his spiritual gift to the sovereignty of the Ponca, a Nebraska tribe led by Chief Standing Bear, who for years claimed “ownership” of ancestral lands in defiance of the US government. The feds moved the tribe to unfertile Indian Territory (Oklahoma). But a Native civil rights lawyer, opposing the move, won a landmark 1879 case that guaranteed constitutional rights for Native peoples. The Ponca returned. In Davis’s drama, Jason is indigenized by his visions of Standing Bear while his father counters his son’s intuitions, telling him to let go of his Native identity.

Amistad tells of a slave schooner of three dozen Africans who rebel, kill most of the Spanish crew, and are steered by a surviving navigator not to Sierra Leone, as they believe, but to New York’s Long Island. There, they are arrested, paraded as “savages,” and put on trial in federal district court, with Spain claiming that the “cargo” is their property. Ex-President John Quincy Adams defends the men, arguing that the US Constitution protects the rights of Africans on our soil.

The opera begins in turmoil: the Africans, led by Cinque, are enthused about their successful rebellion but wary that they are being tricked again. The score reflects this turmoil in its often pointillistic style — a trap drum establishing and disabling patterns, 5/4 meters used like random waves to undergird the chaos. On land, the crew sings of their robbed identity in bluesy choruses, heralding resistance: “We are not slaves!” A Trickster God and a Goddess of the Waters trouble events further, introducing figures from African folktales who teach humans to outsmart their oppressors.

Some of the most ferocious music in Amistad portrays the white devils’ claims that Africans are “coons” with “lower-animal propensities” who must be whipped into shape. In response, Davis’s rocking pulsations industrialize, with brutal insistence, a near onstage riot. He nails arpeggiated dissonances to atonal hardwood; a trap-drum (again) disrupts the action; winged melodies materialize and fly away. Davis puts the earlier shipboard revolt in Act II, where it’s lengthily dramatized, just as their trial begins: “The truth begins in Africa,” a sextet sing. “We thought they came for salt; they came for us.”

Enter John Q. Adams and the abolitionist’s cause: “The greatest liberty brings the greatest power — for the greater good.” Adams’s aria, “This cannot stand […] they are free by our laws,” seals the crew’s right to journey home. Which nearly all do except for Davis’s Trickster, who stays on to match wits with the slaveholder, infiltrating oral and written literature as Br’er Rabbit, Hurston’s Janie, Walker’s Celie, Charles Johnson’s Calhoun. With the blue note and the blues scale alone, we see how fully the signifying monkey has leapt into our culture.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison writes that the Africanist presence in our history establishes difference — “decidedly not American, decidedly other” — as an abiding influence on our multi-hyphenated national identity. Post-1619 and post-1776, “the New was, first of all, its claim to freedom and, second, the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.” This free and unfree presence — especially the Africanist rhythmic and speech idioms that enliven 20th-century American music — is groundwork for Davis, and Amistad is emblematic. “The desire for freedom is preceded by oppression,” Morrison notes, but the means of achieving freedom among the oppressed is rarely equally distributed. The political and economic liberation male English colonists sought and granted themselves has, to say the least, been sought by and stymied for every other shipload of arrivals, women and immigrants, indentured and chattel, with Africans still in the hold.


In Davis’s brash music, I hear the deconstructive ethos of contemporary drama — more declamation than song, more through-composed and divisionless than ariatic, more polyphonically textured than tonally cadential, as much visually as musically vibrant: in short, socially driven dream-telling.

In America, tales of political justice are rarely treated in what we might call our native opera, and when they are, they are often criticized. Richard Dyer, writing in the Boston Globe in 1997, called Amistad “an exhibitionally ambitious and skillfully executed school pageant.” Compelling operas, he argued, have characters individuated by conflict, but “[a]lmost nobody in Amistad is beset by doubt or conflict; almost nobody has an inner life, nobody can surprise us, so ultimately nobody is interesting.” As for the music, Dyer claimed that he rarely heard “any heart-stopping musical elegance.” He called the opera a failure largely because it was “politically correct,” which for him explained “its sold-out audiences.” Similar birds of prey — e.g., Donal Henahan in The New York Times — groused about Davis’s alleged typing of whites (as supremacists, reporters, phrenologists, and one devious president); his doom-laden narratives ending with redemptive verdicts; his skimping on song, comedy, and internal reflection; and his transformation of the theme of social justice into melodrama. Such complaints say more about the complainers than the target.

In the first place, opera aficionados typically trust the vocalist who authenticates a character’s passion via oral virtuosity. How should it be otherwise after hearing Donizetti? It’s neither easy nor pleasing for those opera lovers to set aside the aria-based Mozartian model (or, closer to home, Porgy and Bess) and adopt the polyphonic Wagnerian mix of stage, orchestra, singer, and chorus — an endless, fused drama imbued with mythic and literary storytelling. This “sung play,” owing much to Wagner’s innovations, is best realized, I think, in Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) and Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945) — operas memorable not for their song but for their unremitting narrative agony. The Gershwin song-filled vehicle may still dominate American musical theater, but it seldom drives the new opera.

Second, the notion that “politicizing” contemporary opera makes the form inferior to its past vocal glories is simply false. While opera has spent much of its 400-year history bedrocking virtuosic singing, its political or, broadly speaking, its ethnic agency is evident in many transgressive composers. Consider works such as Fidelio, Nabucco, Treemonisha, Billy Budd, The Threepenny Opera, Nixon in China, Einstein on the Beach, Yardbird (a 2015 opera about Charlie Parker), and Margaret Garner (a 2005 opera about the woman who served as the model for the mother in Toni Morrison’s Beloved); it’s clear that each is plotted with political, ethnic, class- and race-based intent, as story and as music.

(Davis notes that many companies want to stage his operas, and his Pulitzer Prize is starting to bring that about. But some “give lip service,” he says, to diversity and all-Black productions. Why? Because opera elites “fear race.” His work confronts this fear of a racialized repertoire “in ways it hasn’t been confronted in opera.” With X, “the donor class withdrew their funding,” but Beverly Sills stepped in and secured $300,000. Not surprisingly, half of the audience was Black — a multicultural watershed, even in New York.)

Finally, many 20th-century works, X and Amistad included, dethrone opera’s penchant for non-white exoticism, à la the child-bride tale Madame Butterfly. This is not meant to “cancel” the masterworks of Puccini or, for example, Verdi’s Otello (with white singers at the Met quitting blackface portrayals of the Moor only recently). I suggest that we call for more warhorses to be staged as all-Black productions — set La Bohème, Peter Sellars–style, during the Harlem Renaissance, say — thus dispelling the canard that, as a composer’s perspective becomes more “political,” his audience will dwindle rather than grow. No doubt most people, even the literate and donor elites, agree with Virgil Thomson: “The history of music is the history of its composition, not its performance.”


In X and Amistad, the action unfolds in stages, like chapters. The Central Park Five rolls out a different path. It’s a tighter, more harrowing, frenetic score: there are long present-time scenes as the Five are endangered, if not abused, in the cops’ clutches, begging for their parents. The criminal accusations mark, as Davis says, “a sustained assault” — a knee on the necks of these kids, whose anguish is claustrophobically painful. I’ve never seen children in an opera face such threats and vilification.

For those off the grid, the story of the Five begins in 1989 with the rape of a female jogger in Central Park, followed by the predatory grilling of five Harlem teenagers by the police, their trial and conviction on coerced confessions, their imprisonment, and their ultimate exoneration (with compensation) after the rapist, who had “found Jesus,” was DNA-identified and confessed. Davis opens with the grown-up men, who didn’t know each other when they were arrested, reflecting on their stolen innocence; it ends with them freed from but devastated by prison. The design is a mix of limited individual expression and relentless solidarity, with the Five singing, at times in unison, as an Enraged One.

The staging and the music were co-created, Davis says. He worried how to stage the questioning mayhem of the first act and decided he had to “force the audience to feel how the kids felt manipulated” by the prosecutors. For his part, the director added five doors — on rollers — through which the grillings are viewed: investigators open and shut the doors to these exam rooms, in brutal alternation, pushing each kid to confess or turn on the others. The psychological atmosphere is intense, with teenage fears merging with racial projections, and Davis’s music breaks in to raise its own ruckus, a tornadic wind that magnifies the boys’ terror.

Davis added a female assistant district attorney in order to depict a voice “consumed by feminist rage,” because the victim is a white female jogger. This assistant DA has a “Carmen-like role — seductive, harsh, incriminating, and soft,” using “any means she can.” Davis scores her sudden descent into softness, her deviously calming voice, “in a lyrical way”: for him, the telling had to include “feminism meet[ing] racism — and it’s sometimes uncomfortable.”

The “Masque” character reverses the Trickster role in Amistad, offering an array of white figures who engage in malicious acts. Reporters on the Harlem beat indict Black youth as criminals in training, a “wilding” bunch, a “wolf pack” whose friskiness requires intense policing. A male detective, joined by the female DA, devise and extract the false confessions. Most pointedly, proto-reality-TV star and chief New York racist Donald Trump shows up post-arrest, launching his political career off the case. Trump’s masque, indistinguishable from his “character,” is that of a media huckster, a White Bodyguard who will protect “us” from the putative chaos of Black boys, a role he has reprised ever since.

The cauldron keeps boiling. The parents try to save their kids; the Five retract their videotaped confessions; the prosecutors, without blood or semen evidence, use the boys’ self-incrimination at trial; and a sliver of hope is dashed when the jogger wakes up and, on the stand, recalls nothing. Still, after all that, the Five neither declare guilt nor cut a deal. The cell door slams shut. Musically, there’s an inevitable slowdown from agitated motivic riffs to an orchestral mood of exhausted frustration. As the boys’ fate is set, the tale moves inward, and they enter the spiritual wasteland of detention.

The most poignant moment occurs when the Five, convicted and headed to jail, sing in tortured but clear tropes of the trapped Black boy’s life: “I’m in Hell! I’m a lost child, an unfinished man! I’m a man child in an unpromised land!” Only the families, fighting the convictions, keep their innocence alive. To underline the anguish, Davis depicts the restless tedium of lockup, singling out Korey Wise, who served an adult sentence of 13 years, with an intensely soulful aria (“Who’s gonna pay me back?”) after he meets the fellow convict who owns up to the rape. The Five’s exoneration sequence is Janus-faced — joy steeped in sorrow and rage.

At times, Davis spices the mix with a snap of cool jazz or an improvised interlude (spectral sounds from trumpet and trombone). But most of the time, the music traps the boys in corners, where their rawly voiced despair goes unheard, except by us. The hellish scenes of physical and mental incarceration — reflected in the Five’s frenetic singing — are perhaps Davis’s most brilliant and most punishing achievement.


Davis’s Afrocentric subjects have also been tackled by filmmakers. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) came out six years after X. (Davis says Lee saw X and believes it jumpstarted his biopic.) Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) arrived within a few weeks of Davis’s version. Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us debuted in 2019, the same year as Davis’s The Central Park Five, both of which followed 2012 documentary on the subject by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon.

According to Davis, the “visual imagination” of film — the medium of our time — influences composers, who often “see their scores as movies but not dramatized on stage.” The problem is that a film’s staged events are so forcefully recreated (the ship Amistad at sea!) that they overtake and even “silence” the score. By contrast, the stage, Davis says, is only visually suggestive — a suggestiveness that heightens the composer’s voice, keeping the “drama in the music” (as Joseph Kerman argued in his classic 1956 study Opera as Drama). As Davis sees it, young composers who want their voices heard must make a choice: “Is music creating the drama — or is it the wallpaper?”

Davis’s operas bring to life libretti written by poets, such as his cousin, Thulani Davis, or Yusef Komunyakaa, whose spare lyrics he enhances musically. Collaborating with the theater genius Robert Wilson on an abortive project about the Cuban Revolution, Davis realized that Wilson wanted no text at all, a demand Davis balked at. “Words are very important to me,” he says. “I like having a narrative.”

Despite its compelling stories and visual spectacle, I wonder how long opera can last in our “staring” culture, ruled by screens, with listeners losing the capacity for aural discernment. Few of the arts are as visceral as live music that controls (not merely accompanies) a visual depiction — be it Wagner’s Liebestod or Davis’s Malcolm X aria about the white devil: “I would not tell you what I know,” a truth that “you don’t want to know.” In working with any visual medium, music is indispensable to what is felt and subordinate to what is seen — yet another paradox of the art of opera.


The New York City Opera has scheduled The Central Park Five for its 2021–2022 season. Davis’s newest work, We Call the Roll, for four voices and piano, has been commissioned by The Lied Society in Minneapolis. An anthem with text by his cousin Thulani Davis, reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement and the memory of George Floyd, it premieres on October 18, at 4:00 p.m. Central Time, free of charge, and can be streamed online.


Thomas Larson is a 20-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, the author of four books (one on music: The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”), former music critic for The Santa Fe New Mexican, and the author of hundreds of essays, articles, and commentaries on literature, art, and music. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.

LARB Contributor

Thomas Larson is a 20-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, the author of four books (one on music: The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”), former music critic for The Santa Fe New Mexican, and the author of hundreds of essays, articles, and commentaries on literature, art, and music. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.


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