Historically, studies of early 20th-century Pueblo painting focused on the role non-Native anthropologists, artists and patrons played in fostering and marketing Pueblo art. In the last two decades, there has been a shift in approach spearheaded by scholars in the…
Q&A With Alex Jainchill: Illuminating the Story of Malcolm X at the Met Opera
How do you illuminate the powerful story of civil rights leader Malcolm X on the opera stage? It was a challenge that lighting designer Alex Jainchill couldn’t pass up, working on a groundbreaking opera at the renowned Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Jainchill, assistant teaching professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Department of Drama, is part of the creative team for “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” which had its Met debut on Nov. 3. The production is highlighted as part of the Met: Live in HD Broadcast Series. It will be airing at Regal Cinemas Destiny USA Theater on Saturday, Nov. 18; presale tickets are on sale now.
This production of Anthony Davis’ opera, which premiered in 1986, is directed by Tony-Award nominated director of “Slave Play” Robert O’Hara. The opera is described as imagining “Malcolm as an everyman whose story transcends time and space.”
Jainchill, who teaches lighting design, says the artistic team behind this restaging saw the production as one that should be influenced by Afro-futurism—with elements that included a spaceship crash-landing onstage. This ambitious concept created some challenges in developing the environment, but for Jainchill, the biggest challenge in creating this production was in living up to the legacy of Malcolm X.
“As our director, Robert, so nicely put it during the Met production, we must earn telling this story every night. I was very motivated to help tell this story as well as I could,” Jainchill says. “Through my research it became evident how brilliant and charismatic a person Malcolm was. And how sadly relevant many of his ideas still are today.”
Jainchill, who teaches lighting design, frequently collaborates with O’Hara. He was the lighting designer for last season’s “Richard III” (Shakespeare in the Park) featured on PBS’ “Great Performances.” His other work includes designing a Lortel Award-Winning Production of “A Raisin in the Sun” for the Public Theatre; world-premiere musical “Gun and Powder” at Signature Theatre; and “Macbeth” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He is a longtime collaborator with the Berkshire Opera Festival in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he has lit productions of “Fallstaff,” “La Bohème,” “Don Pasquale” and “Three Decembers.” He has two associate lighting designer credits on Broadway: “Old Times” (American Airlines) and “Significant Other” (Booth). He was also the associate lighting designer on the world premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
His latest work with “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” marks his first time on a production at the Met. In this Q&A, he shares a behind-the-scenes look at the creativity in putting together a masterful opera production.
01Tell us what the opera is about. How does it tell the story of Malcom X?
The opera basically traces the chronology of the Alex Haley book “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” For the first few scenes we see Malcolm as a child. We hit on his childhood in Omaha and the influence of [political activist] Marcus Garvey. We learn about his father’s death and his separation from his mother. We go to Boston and meet his sister Ella; then follow the trajectory of adult Malcolm, from his time in jail culminating in his Hajj to Mecca; and his alienation from the Nation of Islam and eventual death.
The opera is unique in that there is a jazz band embedded in the orchestra, and the music style is diverse to match the trajectory of the story.
02How did you become involved in doing lighting for this opera?
This opera has been many years in the making. I have a longtime collaboration with director and playwright Robert O’Hara. Robert was approached, I believe in May of 2021 by Detroit Opera, Opera Omaha and Seattle Opera about doing this as a co-production. We started meeting that summer. Around the time Detroit announced the co-production, the Metropolitan Opera expressed an interest in coming on as an additional co-producer. We had already presented the Opera in Detroit and Omaha before our Met opening.
03What was the challenge of doing lighting for this production?
The concept our creative team developed, starting in the summer of 2021, was that this production should be heavily influenced by Afro-futurism. I think it was in discussion of Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line [steam ship company that Garvey founded] that we first came to the idea of the set being an Afro-futurist spaceship that had crash-landed onstage. Clint Ramos (scenic designer) and Diggle (associate scenic designer) must have done five iterations of how this could work. We had to collaborate closely as this presented a few challenges for lighting, and for the production in general.
Since we had planned dates in so many cities, we had to make sure that the same set would work for all the co-producers. And because the Met works in repertory, with different productions staged throughout the week, we had to make sure that the set wouldn’t interfere with using the repertory lighting system. This meant our spaceship needed to be in three pieces that used forced perspective to get the effect we wanted.
Another challenge was that the music does touch so many genres. There are whole sections of the show that feel more like jazz or musical theatre than opera, which require more cueing.
04What is a memorable part of the production for you?
Artistically, I am proud of the production in general. But one visual section I have always been happy with is when Malcolm is in Charlestown State Prison. I really intended to make as much of the show feel like it was being lit by the spaceship as possible. And my method of lighting these prison scenes felt successful in giving us, visually, the isolation and loneliness of jail, but also the magic of this story being told from an advanced technology.
On a personal note, bringing my parents to the opening at the Met was a highlight.