Six years before Spike Lee’s X, the Yale-trained composer Anthony Davis came up with an opera version of the life of the radical black leader. Though it didn’t attract much attention back then, his opera is just as ambitious as Lee’s bio-epic. X covers the entire span of its subject’s life–from his Depression childhood in Lansing, Michigan, to his assassination in Harlem in 1965. The libretto by poet Thulani Davis (the composer’s cousin) focuses on the pivotal events that shaped the making of Malcolm X, the man and the myth. His three conversions–from a poor child to street hustler, from convict to follower of Elijah Muhammad, from Black Muslim to leader of a worldwide civil rights movement–constitute the dramatic turning points. A theatrical amalgam of modern idioms, the opera’s music builds on the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and the urban idiom of Bernstein’s West Side Story, with plenty of allusions to Ellington, Mingus, and Calloway. The seeming improvisations of a jazz combo contribute spontaneity and urgency to the largely incantatory music. In this concert presentation, part of this weekend’s third annual Chicago Humanities Festival, baritone and former Chicagoan Mark S. Doss sings the title role. The cast also includes sopranos Priscilla Baskerville and Cynthia Aaronson, and mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Michael Morgan conducts a midsize ensemble of CSO musicians. (Ticket prices range from $3 to $10.) Saturday, 3:30 PM, and Sunday, 1 PM, Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; 939-5215 or 435-6666.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack McDonald.