October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

The man whom many see as the hottest young opera composer in the country is pacing around a rehearsal hall in New York’s Lincoln Center, looking about as dressed up as he ever gets: rumpled white suit, bought for him by his mother at Saks Fifth Avenue, ratty green T-shirt and dirty sneakers. Anthony Davis, 35, is putting his singers through their paces as he gets ready for the world premiere of X, his opera about revolutionary black leader Malcolm X. “Tony will not shop for anything,” says his wife, Deborah, 35. His mother, Jeanne, seconds that. “He is very confident and doesn’t think physical things are important,” she says. “He doesn’t feel one should judge people by material things.”

Except, possibly, for success. Startling as it seems, there has never been a major, recognized opera by a black composer. Unlikely as he looks, Davis hopes to become the first to bring it off, and he may be on his way. Even before it opened this week under the aegis of Beverly Sills at New York City Opera, X, a synthesis of contemporary classical and New Wave, was getting the kind of raves more experienced composers dream about. The New York Times’ John Rockwell called it “as successful a ‘third stream’ score as this writer has ever heard,” and the Atlantic went even further: “The most provocative composer to emerge from the jazz avant-garde in the past decade,” it declared.

“Opera has always been elitist,” Davis charges. “With this work I hope to break down the barriers. I lay down the gauntlet to those who doubt that Afro-American music is a serious art form.”

Davis has been an iconoclast all his life, despite or because of his family background. His forebears helped establish Hampton Institute, an early black college, and his father, Charles Twitchell Davis, was the first black professor (of English) at Princeton. The elder of two sons, Anthony remembers dinner table talk being so intense that “we had to invent a game of geography so my father could digest his food.” Growing up comfortable and black in a nearly all-white world “it was important to find my identity,” and Davis went out of his way to stir things up, once refusing to take the Pledge of Allegiance after being elected student council president. “The teachers wanted to impeach me,” he says proudly. “I always had rage. I guess it’s still there. It comes from people telling me I can’t do things.”

But always, there was his music. Tony would come home and play the piano for hours. “It was what I did for release,” he says. “I needed it.” Then, at 14, he discovered Thelonius Monk and a new world opened. “He wasn’t playing tunes,” Davis says. “He was playing music he had composed, and it was as original as Bach or Mozart.” After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Davis studied music at Yale, where “they had to pass a rule against practicing late because I would play from 10 o’clock at night until 4 o’clock in the morning. I mean, every day. Then I played at lunch.”

After graduation, Davis moved to New York City, where he quickly established himself as an innovative jazz musician. In 1981, his father died and Davis’ music changed forever. “I didn’t want to write pretty little tunes anymore,” he says. “I raised my expectations.” Five years ago, his younger brother Christopher, an actor-writer, suggested that he write a musical piece about Malcolm X. “I thought he was crazy,” admits Tony. “But we kept talking and I finally said, ‘It’s a serious topic and it should be an opera.’ ”

Armed with a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the brothers set to work with a cousin, Thulani Davis, a New York writer, who did the libretto. They barely met an October 1985 deadline for the first full-scale production in Philadelphia. “I finished the whole opera at 5 a.m. the day before the dress rehearsal,” remembers Tony. “A friend literally walked into the rehearsal, put the music on the stands and the musicians played it.”

Davis lives with Debbie, a sci-fi writer, and their 7-year-old son, Timothy, in a West Side apartment, where he and Timothy love to watch cartoons. Tony’s other vice: Dynasty. “I’m a major Joan Collins fan,” he admits. “Now, that is sick.” Says Deborah: “We have no class.”

Don’t let such talk fool you. “X is a very powerful piece of writing,” says Beverly Sills. “I hear a lot of Bartok in Tony’s score. I know that’s crazy, but I hear it. Tony is a very well-trained musician and there will be more operas from him. We’re dealing with somebody who knows exactly what he is doing.”

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