November 12, 2023—I recently had the opportunity to participate in what I believe was an innovative audience development and community engagement project presented by New York’s Metropolitan Opera in support of a new staging of the brilliant opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which is being performed until December 2, 2023.
Pianist and composer Anthony Davis, known as the “dean of African-American operas,” composed X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, with a libretto by playwright, journalist, poet, and author Thulani Davis, and the story by writer, actor, and director Christopher Davis. The opera first premiered in 1986.
To develop more interest and expand access to the opera, Mr. O’Hara organized a marathon reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a way to engage audiences with the core of the operatic work and to share the experience of listening to Malcolm X’s own words with other community members. The theater ensemble company, Elevator Repair Service, structured the durational reading in the Met’s intimate Grand Tier.
Over the course of 18 hours and 8 minutes, 60 volunteers read aloud from the Autobiography of Malcolm X in front of a live audience that began with 50 people, grew to 650, and still had scores of people hanging out when the reading concluded. In addition to Broadway and television artists, participants included representatives from The Apollo, The Brotherhood Sister Sol, Columbia University, The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, Harlem School of the Arts, National Black Theatre, New York City agencies and departments, the cast of Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, as well as many other members of New York’s diverse artistic community.
I read aloud from Chapter 17 which is about Malcolm’s transformative experience in Mecca. His realization that skin color does not determine nor limit the humanity of people was a reaffirmation for me of the work I do facilitating Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Access workshops on a national level, and I was able to deepen my respect and appreciation of Malcolm’s insights and wisdom. For me, the timing of reading this chapter excerpt was impeccable!
I also felt the impact this event had on the audience, some of whom may have not ever been to the Met Opera. There were audible responses during the reading that ranged from deeply felt sighs to excitement. Most importantly, the event created a safe and comfortable space for people to engage with ideas, art, artists, and each other. The participation of business, community, civic, government, and cultural organizations, along with Columbia University, also demonstrated the importance of broad-based partnerships in support of access to the arts.
The reimagined production of this historic and ground-breaking opera is inspiring, and this pioneering effort to engage nontraditional audiences in a manner that helped deepen their connection to and understanding of the work will have a lasting impact on all of the participants. Not only has Met Opera created a new measure by which to gauge the success of their efforts to provide access to future audiences, it also has set an example for other arts and cultural institutions about the importance of developing innovative programs to make the arts truly accessible to all.