Anthony Davis: Any Means Necessary

For Anthony Davis, whose compositional aesthetics are an amalgamation of several different musical traditions (jazz, Western classical music, gamelan), different kinds of music recall different emotional states and experiences in terms of what the music implies. So it’s inevitable that he has devoted so much of his compositional energies to opera, and in particular to using the operatic medium to tell stories that either deal with significant historic events or which focus on important social concerns.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

A revival of X, a three-act opera inspired by the life of the Black Muslim minister and social activist Malcolm X, opened at the Detroit Opera House this past weekend (and has additional performances through May 22). While there have been a few performances here and there since its 1986 premiere at New York City Opera, the new Detroit production is the most high profile one and it will continue on to Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Plus there will be another production in June by Odyssey Opera/BMOP in Boston which will culminate in a new recording of the opera scheduled to be released in September. It’s a long overdue recognition for the first opera composed by Anthony Davis, who was finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize last year for his eighth opera, The Central Park Five, another politically charged work based on recent history (which returns to the stage at Long Beach Opera in June and another production of which, presented by Portland Opera, can be streamed from now until May 20).

Back in 1986, a dismissive New York Times review of X by the notoriously contemporary music-loathing critic Donal Henahan, claimed that “words and ideology, not vocalism,” were “the center of attention in this work” and that the opera “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” While the review undoubtedly dissuaded some impresarios back then, this important work, which was staged a year before Nixon in China, arguably spawned a whole subgenre of contemporary operas based on current or relatively recent events which have sometimes been described as “CNN operas,” although Davis considers that term dismissive and “pejorative. … We’re just borrowing; it’s about the headlines.” Especially because for him this story has all the trappings of a classic opera and its protagonist is “a tragic hero.”

When I spoke with Davis over Zoom last month he was in the middle of rehearsals in Detroit, so X was very much at the forefront of his thoughts. But what I didn’t realize is that this new production might have never taken place had Davis not spent a good deal of the pandemic re-engraving performance materials, which is something he worked on just to make good use of the time.

“All stuff was cancelled… So, I thought, what am I gonna do?” Davis explained. “X was a score I’d done by hand before computers. And then Schirmer had done parts and it was done in Score. So I thought, I’d like to make the piece so that it could be done as, you know, excerpts. … I worked like four or five hours on it during COVID. I had to have something to do. I just about finished the excerpts, which is little more than half of the opera, about an hour and a half of music, and then Yuval [Sharon, Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera] called me, and said he wanted to do the whole thing. So I said, great. Well, I’ve done half, I might as well do the whole thing. … And the revised version of the opera emerged from that. It’s like looking at a mirror and seeing, you know, the Dorian Gray thing or something, see your 30-year-old self staring back at you. But I had to protect that 30-year-old self from my 70-year-old instincts to re-write; I couldn’t change everything. I have to be faithful to what I was thinking then, what my musical ideas were at that point.”

Since X was Davis’s first opera, as he pointed out, “There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time.” But before X, Davis had already established a career as a highly successful contemporary jazz composer, pianist, and leader of the progressive ensemble Episteme. He had also made significant in-roads into the world of so-called contemporary classical music, an early pinnacle of which is his idiosyncratic piano concerto Wayang V, a work informed by his fascination with traditional Indonesian gamelan music. It’s a piece that has been recorded twice, both times with Davis as the piano soloist performing with two different orchestras–the Kansas City Symphony led by William McGlaughlin and, more recently, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose (who is also conducting that new recording of X). Before all of that, Davis was actually an aspiring classical pianist.

“I was playing a lot of Schumann then, so I was playing that Fantasiestücke stuff,” he remembered. “I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me…. I actually did a couple concerts in Italy where I played a half program of classical piano, and then a half program of doing Monk tunes. And then I started doing my own compositions. That’s when I first started writing pieces that I could improvise around.”

The fact that many different musical traditions have shaped Anthony Davis’s aesthetic is something he views not as “eclectism” (another bad word in his estimation), but rather as “a resolution of identity, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies.”

So, in a way, it’s inevitable that Davis has devoted so much of his compositional energies to opera, and in particular to using the operatic medium to tell stories that either deal with significant historic events or which focus on important social concerns. Aside from X and The Central Park Five, Davis’s eight operas also include: Amistad, about a rebellion on a slave ship in the 19th century; the Patty Hearst-inspired Tania; and Lear on the 2nd Floor, which re-imagines the famous Shakespeare play as the story of a formerly highly-respected woman who is now living in an assisted care facility because she is suffering from dementia.

Curiously, what first triggered Davis’s interest in opera was reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy during his student years. “I thought that what Nietzsche was writing about in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and the kind of binary that he created, was more applicable to American music than it was to German. Because we’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.” But now he sees creating these operas as a mission. “What we face now is so much like the early-‘30s in Germany: the present danger that we could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it has made it more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.”

  • Read the Full Transcript

    Anthony Davis: Any Means Necessary
    Anthony Davis in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
    Recorded Friday, April 27, 2022 at 6:00 p.m. over Zoom
    Transcribed by Julia Lu

    Frank J. Oteri: You’ve worked in so many different kinds of musical idioms over the last half century, so it’s hard to zero in on things. But of course with you getting the Pulitzer for Central Park Five, everybody’s paying attention to the operas. For a long time, everybody paid attention to the small jazz combo stuff that you do. And you sort of existed in these two worlds, which to an outsider who doesn’t necessarily understand music, might seem like polar opposites.

    Anthony Davis: It never occurred to me that they were opposites at all. I felt that one informs the other. For example, yesterday I was working with the improvisers in X. We had a rehearsal two days ago I still try to bring that spontaneity and musicality of the improviser’s mind to what I’m doing in the opera, too.

    FJO: But of course improvisation–aside from your operas and maybe a handful of other people who’ve mined this terrain–is not something you would normally associate with opera. Nobody’s improvising in Puccini.

    AD: Yeah, but they do in Baroque.

    FJO: Of course. Well, that’s the thing. I was thinking about these relationships. I thought well, both small combo jazz and opera really are at their best when it’s a symbiotic collaboration between various participants.

    AD: Sure.

    FJO: And also while both are group efforts, they offer opportunities for individuals to shine.

    AD: Right. Exactly. And that’s been wonderful for me working with these new singers I’ve been working with here in Detroit and see them make their part theirs. That’s always a process. Sometimes, particularly in the role of Street, which was so identified with Thomas Young who’s a wonderful, incredible singer.  Victor Ryan Robertson, who’s doing it now, he’s making it his. So he’s doing different things. He’d come up to me and say that’s not exactly what’s on the page. And I say, that’s okay. Because it’s also making it his. I like the fact that particularly in that role that every performer can kind of make it reflect them and bring their own personality to it. ‘Cause the personality’s so important. Sometimes I think about Cab Calloway and performers like that who were bigger than life. Whatever they did was Cab Calloway, but still, it invested being Cab Calloway into a role that then reflects a whole tradition and a whole musical history.

    FJO: And of course a part like the role of Street is a double part because that singer’s Street and Elijah Muhammad. Two very different characters.

    AD: Yeah. There are parallels though, you know. They’re both hustlers in different ways. What people miss is that sometimes their message has similarities, too. But what I wanted to bring to Elijah is when you sing Elijah, it’s more line and it’s a different quality. But I think it’s a great challenge for a performer to transform themselves, transform their vocal approach, too.

    FJO: Now, this whole thing about getting interested in opera. I want to take this back to the beginning. You began your life immersed in classical music before you ever got involved with jazz as far as I know.

    AD: Right. That’s true. I was a classical pianist. I took piano lessons, and I was very serious about it. But I always had jazz; we always had jazz in our house. My father was a huge Art Tatum fan. And we also had Dave Brubeck records when they came out and then he got a Charles Mingus record, the Blues & Roots record. I remember I really got into that, when I grew up, as you can hear in X. Some of the harmonic progressions are right from Moanin’. So I grew up hearing that, and then my dad loved Kurt Weill so I heard Three Penny Opera, probably the opera I heard the most. And then my grandfather was an opera fan, but I didn’t see them that much. They lived in Hampton. Actually, he was treasurer of Hampton Institute with the historically black university in Hampton, Virginia. And he had initiated an opera series to bring in Black opera performers to perform at Hampton. So when I meet older opera singers like Betty Allen or people I met a number of years ago, or Leontyne Price, they all performed at my grandfather’s series. I would hear Verdi and Puccini when I would go to his house. But then he also loved organ trios and gospel music, so that’s what I associate with him. So I had a little bit of contact with that, but mostly I was immersed in playing Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart–you know, all that stuff.

    FJO: Were you writing any music at that time?

    AD: I wrote music when I was little, like second grade, first grade. I was living in Princeton, New Jersey, and they had a music school called Nassau Street Music School. You had two lessons a week. So you had one lesson, a regular one-on-one lesson. And you had a group lesson with a cardboard keyboard. And you have to sing. You’d have to sing all the parts, which is great because I can practice on a desk at school and study hall, wherever. I could imagine a keyboard, hear the music in my head, and just do it. And then we had to do a recital every month. And part of the recital you had to do one of your own pieces. So I wrote pirate songs and stuff like that, ‘cause I was in second grade, but then when I moved to State College, Pennsylvania, that kind of stopped it. It was traditional, classical piano I was doing.

    FJO: There’s a story I love that I’ve heard you tell:  At one point, you were going to Italy with your family and a friend as a joke gave your father a copy of Monk in Italy, and that’s what brought Thelonious Monk into your life.

    AD: Exactly.

    FJO: Forever.

    AD: Exactly. I love that record. I wore out that record. I listened to it over and over. I think what got me was that, it was 1966, middle of the Civil Rights thing, and I had this kind of crisis going to Italy. I started thinking about what it meant to be a black person. Where I grew up in State College, my brother and I were the only black people in the school. So I began to think about that. And I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me. And, so then discovering Monk, I was really interested because it was a seamless transition from his role as an improviser and as a composer. It seemed to be one voice. And when I’ve heard him play, and when I heard his compositions, that seems to be a common aesthetic. And that’s really what drew me to his music.

    We initially didn’t have a piano. And I had to go to the Steinway store in Torino, Italy to practice. At first I was playing Beethoven. I was playing a lot of Schumann then, so I was playing that Fantasiestücke stuff. And then one day, ‘cause I’ve been listening to this Monk stuff, I started picking out Straight, No Chaser, and then I learned Ruby, My Dear. I started playing Monk tunes in the Steinway store. And they kind of liked it; they liked that I was playing Monk tunes, and so, by the end of that time, I actually did a couple concerts in Italy where I played a half program of classical piano, and then a half program of doing Monk tunes. And then I started doing my own compositions. That’s when I first started writing pieces that I could improvise around.

    FJO: Wow, so it really was Thelonious Monk. That fortuitous joke gift turned into this life changing–I love when things like that happen.

    AD: They also had this great record store in Torino, where they had this conveyor belt which would bring the record. And you could listen to like three or four records before you bought one. So I was listening to all these Coltrane records. I started listening ‘cause I heard Coltrane with Monk. And I heard Miles and Sonny Rollins. But then I started listening to Bud Powell. I started expanding, every day going to this record store and listening to some records before I went home.

    FJO: But in terms of like a life-long influence, even to the point when you made your first album, when you made Past Lives, there’s a lot of Monk on there. And you have a very, very personal, idiosyncratic, idiomatic version of Monk that you do, that’s wonderful, on that record.

    AD: Well listening to Monk is what really opened my mind to music. And to what I could become as a composer, and also as a player, as an improviser. I even started changing my technique, playing with flat fingers and stuff. My normal classical technique doesn’t sound right to me. So I did a lot of things like emulating Monk, and learning, learning Monk from studying his music. And then someone like Steve Lacy who is so immersed in Monk, too. I mean, he was immersed in Monk and had the chance to play with Monk. I had the chance to hear Monk live one time. It was supposed to be a Monk tribute concert at Carnegie Hall. And Monk was in the audience, and he just stood up, and walked on stage, and played the whole concert.

    FJO: Wow.

    AD: That was unbelievable. I think Barry Harris was supposed to play, but Monk played the whole concert.

    FJO: That’s fantastic. So this transformation, it’s like classical pianist discovers Monk, does all this stuff, but then you went off to Yale. Were you studying composition at Yale?

    AD: Initially I was a philosophy major and I studied philosophy. That interest started in Italy, too. I had a wonderful teacher who started a philosophy class when I was in tenth grade in Italy. It was basically Existentialism 101. You know, read Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, and Sartre and Camus, and all that stuff which is a dangerous thing for a tenth grader, I think. I could have turned into a Nihilist pretty easily.

    FJO: There’s this guy who read Nausea as an undergrad, and he dropped out of school as a result.

    AD: Well, that’s what I was about to do. By the time I got to Yale, I was so like: who cares, we’re all going to die. But Nietzsche opened my mind to opera. It was through Birth of Tragedy and reading that, that I became interested in the idea of opera, and what opera could be. But I thought that what Nietzsche was writing about in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and the kind of binary that he created was more applicable to American music than it was to German. Because we’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.

    FJO: Wow, before we jump to opera, before you started doing that, is the work you were doing with people like Marion Brown and Anthony Braxton, and especially Wadada Leo Smith, whom you’ve continued playing with for years. You might have gone to Yale and gotten a music degree. I didn’t know you were a philosophy major.

    AD: I did eventually get a music degree. I couldn’t write my thesis on Hegel. I decided to be a music major my senior year. So I had to go take all the required courses, which was funny.

    FJO: But I imagine working with those people you learned more than anybody you would have learned from at Yale.

    AD: Yeah, well I did have one teacher at Yale, Robert Morris, who was great, who was a great theorist, and he had a composition class. So I took his composition class. I met Wadada my freshman year at Yale. He had a duo with Marion Brown, and he was living in New Haven. So eventually–George Lewis and I were both freshman at Yale at the same time–we got together with Wadada to play as a trio, We were playing Wadada’s music, which was great because for me, it was an introduction to that whole world. Through Wadada, I met Braxton and so many other musicians. And also the other connection I had was I took some classes at Wesleyan in South Indian music and through Jay Hoggard and other people, I met Ed Blackwell who was just teaching in Middletown. And Marion Brown was also at Wesleyan at the time. And so I started playing with Blackwell and Mark Elias. We had a trio, and then with Jay Hoggard, a vibraphonist. So that was great ‘cause through Blackwell, I got to meet Ornette [Coleman] going to New York. Go down to Prince Street to play pool with Ornette. It was really fun. Ornette was so great. I think at that time, Blackwell was giving Denardo drum lessons, so I would go down with Blackwell, take him down to the city, and then hang out with Ornette during the drum lesson. It was great to get to know him, and I always loved his music, too.

    FJO: So encountering those people, how much of their ideas seeped into your composition ideas, if any? Because your music seems to be, for lack of a better term, very heterodox in that it embraces so many things open-endedly and uses them for what they can be used for. It’s a means to an end, but never an end in and of itself.

    AD: Right. Well, I think they were a tremendous influence. Wadada particularly was a huge influence on me because I got together with Wadada regularly. And some of it was just listening. When I first met Wadada, I was immersed in Monk and Bud Powell. I was really a bebop piano player. I was coming from that and Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. McCoy Tyner was a big influence on me, too. And then from Wadada, I started listening more to Ellington, older music: James. P. Johnson. Fats Waller, stride pianists, ‘cause he came up to me one day, and I was playing with my trio, and he said what happened to your left hand? I was playing bebop with chords in the left, and he said, don’t you improvise with your left hand?  So I did a solo on my left hand, what the hell. but I began to really also develop my own musical language. And also listen to Cecil Taylor a lot. You know, Cecil was a big influence, and then later when I moved to New York, I got to know Cecil really well. And he was someone who was a real mentor for me as well, but then developing different kind of hand independence. I used to imagine playing with Blackwell and Ornette, I was thinking how I could be Charlie Haden in the left hand and Don Cherry in the right.

    I wanted to see how I could do that, so I started playing with two lines at once, and that helped me a lot. ‘Cause when I played with Leroy Jenkins, I was in a lot of groups without a bass player. We had a group; it was Leroy, Andrew Cyrille and me–just with violin, drums, and piano–so I to take on a lot of the other functions. That was a challenge and interesting for me. And a way to develop different aspects of my piano playing. And also fed into my overall aesthetic. But I think with Wadada and then being introduced to Ellington Suites and studying Ellington’s music, I began to think about creating long form compositions. Already, I was really into Mingus too. I studied a lot of Mingus’ music, so I started thinking about how to create longer forms. I wrote science fiction suites that were based on science fiction novels. My band at that time was George Lewis, Hal Lewis, Wes Brown, and Gerry Hemingway. So we had a really great group.

    FJO: And this was the group that led to Episteme.

    AD: It was before, it was called Advent. George came up with the name. George and I had a group together. And we did some of George’s music too, and then we also did some of Henry’s music and Muhal’s music. George brought a lot of music from AACM, so for a college group in the ‘70s, we were pretty out there. And then doing our music. So I wrote a series with The Left Hand of Darkness. I wrote Dune Suite. And then I wrote a pieced called Madagascar, ‘cause I found out my ancestors came from Madagascar, which was weird for a black person in America to have roots in east Africa. I wrote a lot of long, large-scale pieces for the group. That’s how I began to develop my own voice and what kind of music I was gonna do. And also then playing with Wadada with the New Delta that I created with Wes Brown, initially just with Wes and Wadada and me. And then later with Pheeroan and Oliver Lake.

    FJO: I never knew about the whole Madagascar thing, does that explain your deep interest in Indonesian music because of the relationship between Madagascar and Indonesia?

    AD: Well, not really. It just came from music from Wesleyan because they had a gamelan, and I went to a wayang performance in Middletown. That wiped me out. You know, I was so excited by it. I started writing a series of pieces called Wayangs, initially solo piano, and then for my group, and then Wayang Five was for orchestra and piano. And then I did a two-piano thing for Ursula Oppens. I was really captivated by the music and also the drama of it. I began to think about what it means to create a rhythmic drama. And that influenced my whole approach to opera as well.

    FJO: That’s actually a good point to transition to talking about opera because, as I was saying before, pf this whole idea of you’re using different sound worlds as means to an end. I would almost say, if you would allow the metaphor here, to use the music to do what it needs to do by any means necessary to tell the story.

    AD: A little Malcolm quote, okay. I think it’s interesting because all these different musics create a different atmosphere. They can really delineate a drama, describe places, etcetera. And so I found this really interesting for me to explore the intersection. Also because opera is so much about memory. You can always go back to things that are in the opera. You’re creating your own kind of world in it, but it also has the extra world of what it refers to in terms of opera, the whole genre of opera, and also what other music you bring into opera. What I draw on in terms of influences in the opera is part of the creation of the world that I want to create in an opera. My second opera for example was all wayangs music. It was controversial because it was all Indonesian influence and the wayang music that I’d been developing. I wanted to write in contrast to X, which was much more expansive. It’s always fun for me to discover what the language of the opera will be and how it reflects the story and the narrative.

    FJO: I get the science fiction thing because you were reading science fiction novels, you were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, so you were inspired to do the second opera Under the Double Moon, which is a science fiction opera, but what led you to decide that Malcolm X was a great narrative for an opera?

    AD: It started with my brother Christopher. Kipp is an actor, and he was in play called El-Hajj Malik, playing the role of Malcolm X in the play. So I went to the play, and after the show, he came up to me and he said: “You know, you should write a musical about Malcolm X because in the autobiography there’s so many references to music.” He was around musicians and music, particularly jazz, all the time. All the musicians I know from that knew him in that period, because he was around the music. Even Billy Taylor told me a story that when he had a radio show on WBAI that he had, a jazz show, that literally Malcolm spoke, gave his sermon on Sunday, just before the jazz show. So he would always stay for the music.

    So I had this image of Malcolm listening to John Coltrane’s quartet, or Sonny Rollins. I felt that the link to music was really evident. So my brother’s initial concept was the idea of the parallel of the development of the politics, and Malcolm’s odyssey as a political figure, with the evolution of the music. So you can start you know, in the late-‘30s and ‘40s in musical style, like into bebop period in the late-‘40s, early-’50s, into the modal period and the avant-garde. So some of that is actually in the opera. That’s the inspiration for act I, scene II, when you’re Boston; I’m sort of creating this thing. All of a sudden he’s being introduced to the city and he’s really being introduced to the music. In the autobiography he talks about hearing Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in Boston. The bass player in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in the early ‘50s was Mingus.

    And Mingus wrote Mingus Fingers for Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. And I love Mingus, anyway, so I thought I’ll have to do something about that and the relationship to Mingus makes sense. And then I wrote Ella’s aria. I borrowed from the Left Hand of Darkness suite. The first part was actually called “Left Handed Darkness” originally, but I wrote a melody on top of what it was, “Left Handed Aria,” and actually had the alto and trombone melodies come in in between. It worked very well, coming with Bella’s welcome. Welcoming Malcolm to your home in Boston. And then it changes. All of a sudden it modulates and it’s Ellington chords that take you into F-minor, which is like Mingus’ F-minor, D-flat. It’s like his Pithecanthropus Erectus, Moanin’. I can just think of ten million pieces like that, of Mingus’. I realized later that progression comes from the tune “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

    It was interesting to me because in a sense, it’s like the title of that song’s the underscoring for the scene. “You don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues.” He didn’t understand the meaning of the blues yet. And then he’s gonna learn from Street about the blues, ‘cause all of Street’s music is really rooted in the blues. And so the conversion he has from Malcolm Little to Detroit Red is through the blues. Thinking about the blues is subversive, and the blues is subverting middle class aspirations, and in a way it was a reflection of what Street would call the hopelessness of the middle class aspirations as being a response to, rather than a different kind of subversive response, Nation of Islam or something. The only option he has is the hustler’s life.

    FJO: Now, interesting that you’re saying all this. I was listening yet again to X last night, to that wonderful recording which is sadly out of print, hopefully someone will re-issue that, well hopefully there will be new recordings as well.

    AD: Yeah, we’re doing a new one in June.

    FJO: Oh fantastic. That’s great. But I’m listening to this, and I’m thinking to myself, I’m listening to that, that section with Street, and one of the things I’m hearing in Street’s phrasing, I don’t know if it’s me or if I’m crazy, but I’m like: this is so interesting, ‘cause it’s not operatic phrasing. It’s not bel canto phrasing or verismo phrasing. It’s Abbey Lincoln’s phrasing.

    AD: Oh yeah.

    FJO: And I’m like: wow, I’m hearing the way she phrased things there.

    AD: ‘Cause Thomas is a great jazz singer. That was a revelation to me because when I originally wrote the opera, Street was a bass. ‘Cause I wanted to get as far away from Sportin’ Life as I could, because people might relate it to Sportin’. Actually Avery Brooks was the first Street. Then when we did it, Avery wanted to play Malcolm. I said of course. It would be great. He’s an incredible actor and incredible musician, too. Then I was doing auditions for Elijah Muhammad, and Thomas came in and sang the Daughter of the Regiment aria–all the high Cs–and killed it. And then he sang Gounod’s Faust, and he killed that. So I said. “Well, you’re Elijah Muhammad, that’s not any question.” And then he said, “Well, I’m singing”–I was living in Manhattan Plaza at the time, he was singing in a club in my building that night. He’s singing at the West Bank Café, which is a club right on 42nd Street. So I called my brother up, and we went down to hear him sing, and I hear this incredible jazz singer who could scat like Ella, who could do all this. Plus he was doing Strayhorn tunes, and killing Strayhorn tunes. And Ellington, and the hippest stuff. So I said to Kipp, “I think I have to make Street a tenor too. We have to make Street and Elijah played by the same person.”

    FJO: That’s how it came about!

    AD: Yeah. So I said he can be an antagonist throughout the opera, too. There are a lot of benefits to that. So I went home that night, and I modulated Street’s aria from where it was, from F-minor, to C-minor. There it was. And now it’s a tenor part. I made him a tenor. And Tom just embodied it, took it all kinds of places. And also he had the liberty to improvise. He was an improviser. He could scat. When he sings “Play the Game,” he plays around it and it was great because there’s this incredible energy about it. Every performance was a little different. The way I wrote the part, ‘cause I was thinking kind of the jump blues stuff like Louis Jordan Timpany Five and stuff like that, or Nat King Cole in 1940s you know, late-1940s you know, so that kind of jazz, rhythm, and blues combinations. And then Cab Calloway of course, too. But trying to give him the freedom also to make it his. I said he didn’t have to be literal with the music; sometimes he could do things differently. And then when I did this new version now, I listened to Tom’s version, and I said, oh, I like that so much better than what I wrote. You know; what I wrote was too square. So I started writing some embellishments with this idea of how it could be more expansive. And  Victor’s taken it, and now he does his own thing to it, too.

    FJO: You know, that’s the thing. This is an opera that should be done all over the place. Why isn’t this done all over this place? Now, people are starting to wake up to this. But, I think, part of this is you have to really be bi-musical, and in some senses, tri-musical, not just the players in the pit, but also the singers.

    AD: Right. Well, one of the advantages of working with black singers is that they have many experiences. They sing in church. Okay? Maybe they sang in the black church. They’d sing opera, but some of them of have sung jazz, too. It’s not an alien artform.

    FJO: Right.

    AD: So you can find the hybrid musician. I think that’s merged over time. It was rarer in 1986, when I did it, than it is now. They’re exposed to many things. I think an opera program, my wife might disagree ‘cause she’s an opera singer, but I think they have to learn Billie Holiday. They have to understand Billie Holiday to understand how you use words, and how you phrase, and how you find rubato within time, how you find freedom within the time, rather than having to stop the time.

    FJO: I agree with that completely. In order to do right by a piece like this, you need to have what I’d call a desegregated music culture, where it’s open.

    AD: Well, yeah.

    FJO: And it’s interesting because, on the one hand, there are still these folks now, although their voices are getting more and more muffled, who want to preserve the Western classical tradition. You know, keep all this other stuff out. But then at the same time, it’s interesting that this all came together in an opera about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, which was about trying to separate these strands. Elijah Muhammad probably wouldn’t have approved of all these different kinds of music.

    AD: No, because they’re puritanical. There’s a puritanical streak in America. But I think Malcolm had reached a point when he formed his own movement, left the Nation of Islam. He realized then the potential of seeing a broader, desegregated world. But he realized that the Civil Rights struggle was really about power and economics. And also that self-determination has to be part of that in order for black businesses to thrive. The struggle will only be successful if we uplift ourselves. We can’t rely on the white world to help us. I think, in a way, they kind of work together, Martin Luther King and Malcolm, at the time. So it’s interesting to me. When I wrote X, I wanted to have the freedom to assume that there was no boundary in genre. That one can explore and go across cultural and genre boundaries to make something new.

    FJO: Yeah, and by that point, jazz, classical music, traditional gamelan music, there were all these different things that were in your head that you couldn’t un-hear.

    AD: It was important to me that the music could reflect a broader sense. Sometimes they call it eclectism, which I think is a bad word for it. ‘Cause that’s like thinking or picking pebbles on the beach or something, you know. It’s actually a resolution of identity, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies. I think what that can relate to is subtext in a dramatic sense, what is the subtext of what’s going on. And so the music always provides a subtext.

    FJO: And I think what you said earlier on in the conversation–reading Nietzsche and thinking about opera–relates here, that these dualities refer more to Americans than they do to Europeans in a way because we are a hybrid culture.

    AD: Since the minstrel show there hasn’t been a European culture here. I mean certainly since 1840. So that struggle is over. Also the Europeans’ vantage point on quote unquote vernacular music, which is a funny word, I don’t think they have the love and appreciation of what that is. And it doesn’t define them the way it defines us. They have a love for the music. So many fans of Ellington, etcetera, you know, but I think that it doesn’t define them in the same way. And so it’s important to me to bring that into the equation. I didn’t have to leave my traditions, what I love in music, to be an opera composer. I brought that with me. You don’t leave stuff behind. You don’t do that.

    FJO: Right. Now the other thing that we didn’t get into yet that made X such a revolutionary piece is people talk about this very odd term, CNN opera. You know, operas that are about contemporary figures, current events. Yours was the first. X pre-dates Nixon in China.

    AD: Yeah.

    FJO: It pre-dates all these other things that have become part and parcel of what creating contemporary operas that speaks to contemporary audiences are about.

    AD: Well, yeah. It was kind of a pejorative the way it was used: CNN Operas. It was kind of dismissed as this trend. We’re just borrowing; it’s about the headlines, etcetera. Rather than in Malcolm, I found a tragic hero. And you could relate, I mean, you can relate it directly to Birth of Tragedy. One is a tragic hero. He even gave me three different names, so each act could be a change of name. This person went through the fire, went through this whole odyssey and transformation, and then when he finally has a realization of who he is, and what he can do in the world, he’s struck down by his own people. That’s something that’s always got me. I mean, it wasn’t like some crazy White dude, like with Martin Luther King. So to me, it’s a tragic outcome. Malcolm’s such an identifiable figure, not just in the U.S., but in the West Indies, in South America, in Africa. Rappers are inspired by Malcolm X, etcetera. He’s a transcendent figure. I think there’s a reason to do this. Sometimes it’s not just to capture some moment in history or a voyeuristic kind of thing to looking at history. It’s not about that. It’s about how those stories resonate now. And what they say to us. And what his story tells us about who we are now.

    FJO: But you know, similarly, other operas of yours have mined recent history. You know, you have a whole opera about Patty Hearst. Tania. And the most recent Central Park Five, which is something that’s very much on our minds because the former president of the United States, way before he was, began his career as this demagogue.

    AD: Right. Exactly.

    FJO: He’s a minor character in that opera. So you know, these are very much about characters that we know in a way. The earliest operas were about myths. But these are the myths of our time. You know, we may all know who Malcolm X is, but do we know who the real Malcolm X was? So he’s sort of been mythified.

    AD: Of course.

    FJO: Certainly Patty Hearst has been mythified in our culture. And, the Central Park Five, this is still an unresolved story for some people. These people were jailed for years, and they’ve finally been exonerated, and finally got reparations for it, but you still have people out there in the woodwork, including that former president, insisting that they’re guilty.

    AD: Yeah, with no evidence to say they were guilty. No physical evidence. Nothing. I mean, of course, the truth to them doesn’t matter. That’s because they’re only interested in propaganda. They’re only interested in what’ll advance their individual agenda. And only interested in power. And that’s unfortunate because, right now, it’s a really dangerous time in America. We can be on the edge of Fascism; that’s something I worry about every day. I did a class this year on 20th century opera. I was teaching Wozzeck and Mahagonny. I used this book called Opera and Fascism. And it was really interesting, because what we face now is so much like the early-‘30s in Germany: the present danger that we could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it has made it more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.

    FJO: Well, certainly when you write a piece on a stage like this, of course, you know, most of the people who are going to attend Central Park Five are people who are gonna agree with the truth.

    AD: You’re preaching to the converted.

    FJO: Right.

    AD: But it was interesting because Jenny Rivera, who’s the General Manager of Long Beach, when she did it in Long Beach, she said she had Republicans on her board. Right? And they came to the opera. And they liked it. They were interested in it. You’re trying to reach people at the level of empathy. I was trying to get people to [think]: what if I were one of the five or my child was one of the five? What does that mean? How can I relate to that? Then you might make some change–a little change, anyway.

    I think it’s really important to stand up to those forces. Where I live, you think California is a safely blue state in many respects, but if you just travel a few miles east of the West Coast, you realize you’re in Trump land again. You have to keep on challenging that. Sometimes you can seduce people with art. When I was doing Street’s music for example, I wanted to make the music fun, so that audiences would imagine: Wait a second, I would like to do that. I would do that. And then they’d say uh-oh. I really would do that? Sometimes you have to go through things to see what the attraction is. That’s something that really fascinates me all the time, ‘cause it’s so easy just to cancel and condemn things, and not go through what the experience is.

    FJO: When you create an opera, you do create this zone of empathy for the characters. So then, are there some characters who should be off limits? Like could there, should there be a Putin opera, let’s say?

    AD: I’m sure there will be. There’d be a Putin opera. There was a Stalin opera, so there might as well be a Putin opera. I think you probably could only do a Hitler one as a comedy: Springtime for Hitler–that’s about it.

    FJO: I need to investigate what this Stalin opera is.

    AD: Robert Wilson did it. Life and Times of Joseph Stalin.

    FJO: Oh, right. Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. Yeah, that’s true.

    AD: I don’t know how much it’s about Stalin really.

    FJO: There’s no Stalin as a heldentenor.

    AD: Well, funny thing about Trump is he’s such a tenor. You know, you hear his voice. It’s a tenor voice and it was interesting to write. Kind of a buffo thing. Someone asked me, “How do you write music for Trump?” I said: well, first of all, he’s a tenor. Second of all, he repeats things a lot. Third thing is he never finishes a sentence. Why was that appealing to people? I mean, this launched his whole career as a politician. He exploited the racial divide for his own personal benefit as a political figure. What is the lure to it? What is that about? That gets interesting ‘cause it’s easy to just do comedy. I’ve been thinking a lot about doing an opera on The Great Dictator. That’s another piece that kind of deals with Hitler. It supposedly came out of a comment Gershwin made to Charlie Chaplin. They were doing some kind of benefit. They were appalled by what was going on Hollywood ‘cause Germans were raising money in Hollywood. So Gershwin said to Chaplin, allegedly, Hitler’s doing you. He’s the little tramp. He’s doing you, so why don’t you do him?

    FJO: Wow. Wow. Interesting.

    AD: Now it could be Putin, or Hitler, or Trump. So The Great Dictator would be interesting.

    FJO: Well, one piece we didn’t get to talk about that I’d love to talk about just a little bit, because I love it and it’s a piece that I wish would be better known, is your Lear on the 2nd Floor, which I think is so moving and poignant. We talked about empathy before. I think I’ve never seen dementia portrayed in an operatic context in a way that’s so understanding and empathic, and moving. My favorite scene is this scene where this nurse is trying to make her take a bath and there’s this reggae aria that’s just fabulous.

    AD: That was fun to write, and I had a great performance. Jorell Williams is incredible, and he asked me: can I do it in a Caribbean accent? I said, “Sure. Oh, by God.” ‘Cause I wrote it as a reggae. And that was funny ‘cause I thinking about the relationship. So this is an everyday occurrence. This is something that happens with different forms of dementia. One of the symptoms is actually sexual arousal, taking on other relationships and promiscuity. So, I thought about that a little bit. That’s something that no one explores much, but this is opera. There’s a movie that I saw with Julie Christie that was about Alzheimer’s. And actually that’s where some of the title comes from because it was talking about the people on the second floor who are more gone.

    My wife’s aunt had Alzheimer’s and died of it. And I had a close friend who had Lewy body disease who was in San Diego. And so I saw the progression of that. He was a scientist and a brilliant mind, and a doctor as well. So he could think, but he couldn’t talk. He could only sing, which was really weird. Toward the end of his life, he could only sing to communicate. And so I thought about that. Then also thinking about Shakespeare’s Lear and his relationship with the Fool. There are a lot of mysteries in that play. There’s no Mrs. Lear. What is the storm? Is this storm just a physical storm? Or is it a mental storm? Is it fugue state? For me, the storm was about a mental state. I’d done incidental music for a production of King Lear that was at the Yale Rep with Avery Brooks as Lear. It was based on the idea that it was the Olmec civilization. So, African meets Mexican. It was interesting, but I was frustrated with it because when we got to the storm, I had all these ideas for the storm, but the director didn’t want me doing it.

    I knew Avery could sing. So I said, “Avery, you want to sing the storm?” I thought of the storm also being all the voices. All these voices coming out of the whole play collapsing on him at the same time. You know, so this storm would be this collection of voices rather thunder or lightning and all that shit. But the director didn’t want to do it. So that was frustrating, ‘cause I thought about it, and then I thought maybe I should do an opera about King Lear. Verdi tried it. But he couldn’t. I mean, it was too much. There’s too much, but I could do kind of a take on it. And then it turned out my friend Allan Havis, who is a great playwright, was asked to do a Yiddish Lear for Shelly Berman. And so he wrote a play of Lear that was in Yiddish for Shelly Berman.

    FJO: Wow.

    AD: Yiddish Lear. So, we were good friends, and so we were talking about it. So finally, we should write a Lear. So what would it be? And I thought and thought about this Julie Christie movie I saw where she has an affair with someone else who also has Alzheimer’s, and she doesn’t remember her husband. There’s something buried in their relationship that’s screwed up. Okay. So I thought, why don’t we call it Lear on the 2nd Floor. And then we took off from there. The Fool became her dead husband, and it was an interesting and different take on it. And I think Allan was really brilliant with that, ‘cause, as I said, we had both worked on Lears.

    FJO: I thought it was very, very moving.

    AD: Oh, thank you. Eastman School of Music is doing a production of it in November.

    FJO: Oh, that’s great. So these pieces are starting to enter the repertoire. This is really exciting.

    AD: Yeah.

    FJO: This is the final area that I wanted to speak to. Obviously you’re thinking about what the next project is. ‘Cause composing music is very much about the present. But now this older piece, X, is more than 35-years-old at this point, now it’s getting done again. It’s part of history. All these pieces of new music are going to become old music. They’re going to become the past. What’s your hope for this body of work?

    AD: Well, during COVID, I didn’t have any commissions. My commissions were cancelled. All stuff was cancelled. I was doing a few telematic concerts, but not that much. So, I thought, what am I gonna do? And I said, well, X was a score I’d done by hand before computers. And then Schirmer had done parts and it was done in Score. So I thought, I’d like to make the piece so that it could be done as, you know, excerpts. Maybe I could put narration with it. I could write some narration. So I started taking excerpts of the opera. I’d done this concert kind of thing with my group with excerpts. But I thought I’d do it for the largest possible thing with chorus, orchestra, and principals, and everything.

    I’d started working furiously on these excerpts. Every day. I worked like four or five hours on it during COVID. I had to have something to do. I just about finished the excerpts, which is little more than half of the opera, about an hour and a half of music, and then Yuval [Sharon, Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera] called me, and said he wanted to do the whole thing. So I said, great. Well, I’ve done half, I might as well do the whole thing. I’ll do the rest. So I did the rest. I looked at the score, and I wanted to make it as clear as possible, so clarifying some of the things in the orchestration stuff, and then maybe I didn’t need this repetition, making it as succinct as it could be, as powerful as it could be. And the revised version of the opera emerged from that. It’s like looking at a mirror and seeing you know, the Dorian Gray thing or something, see your 30-year-old self staring back at you. But I had to protect that 30-year-old self from my 70-year-old instincts to re-write; I couldn’t change everything. I have to be faithful to what I was thinking then, what my musical ideas were at that point.

    A photo of Anthony Davis from around the time he composed the opera X. (Photo courtesy G. Schirmer/Wise Music Classical)

    FJO: I’m really impressed that you did that deep dive into the past, I’m also impressed about your optimism for the future. That you were working on this piece, a big piece for chorus and full orchestra in the middle of the pandemic, when there couldn’t even be such performances.

    AD: It gave you a certain kind of freedom ‘cause you had no deadline, right? Not even a due date. There’s no due date. No deadline. I can really fine tune this thing and I figured out what I think will be how this piece can endure and be preserved in the best possible way. And also doing a computer thing, if I wanted to it with a smaller group, I can adapt it. I’m so glad I did it and I was able to do the whole opera. There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time. There’s a flame that goes; it’s like you’re discovering all these things. You know, like my first opera, I discovered a ton of things. So it was really rewarding for me to go back and made me understand why I went into opera, and why I wanted to continue to do opera. I wrote an aria for a new opera, too. So hopefully, I can get some of these commissioned.

    FJO: Is that The Great Dictator, or is this something else entirely?

    AD: No, this one is about the Tulsa Race Massacre called Fire Across This Tracks. Tulsa 1921. And Thulani [Davis] is writing a libretto for it. And then I’d done this other opera, I started a while ago, called The Reef, that was based on Edith Wharton’s novel. It’s totally different than anything I’ve ever done. ‘Cause it’s kind of a Gilded Age character study, but I injected race in it. We put it in a sugar plantation in the West Indies, rather than in Paris and one of the characters is mixed race, and the chorus is black. So it’s a different take on Edith; race wasn’t really in her writing that much.

    FJO: Wow, well I’m very eager to hear all of this stuff.

    AD: Well, thank you Frank. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. It’s great to talk to someone who knows something about what I did.