Our time has produced few tragic heroes more tragic or more heroic than Malcolm X, who began life as Malcolm Little and ended it -- violently, abruptly -- as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His life is prime material for opera, and that it has become in "X," a new opera first performed completely last week, with Peter Aaronson conducting, at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia.

"X" was a sort of family project, with music by Anthony Davis, a scenario by his brother Christopher and libretto by their cousin Thulani Davis. It has been given partial performances in workshops and as a work in progress, and will enter the repertoire of the New York City Opera next season. Despite some lingering problems of structure and inevitable shaky moments on opening night, it is a first-class piece of work and a significant addition to the American operatic repertoire. It tells, with great impact, one of the significant stories of our time -- a story whose material sometimes seems almost too strong, too overwhelming as pure narrative, to bear the transformation into a traditional art form.

Malcolm's life can be summarized in the changing sequence of his names.

Malcolm Little had a deprived, disrupted childhood, shattered by the violent death (which may or may not have been accidental) of his father, a member of Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa movement.

Malcolm X began to be born in prison, when Malcolm Little encountered the Nation of Islam, a religion founded by Elijah Mohammed. He then renounced his "slave name" and the life of crime associated with it, became Elijah's right-hand man, established the newspaper Mohammed Speaks, transformed the Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims) into a dynamic political and cultural force and became its most prominent national spokesman. Too prominent. Elijah was disturbed by the attention his vigorous young disciple was attracting and the independence of his words and actions. An inevitable break came, dividing the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm, seeking a purer form of the Islamic religion, made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, where his religious ideas were revolutionized and he took his third name, "a name for one reborn," renounced racial separatism and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity. He was gunned down by assassins while addressing a meeting of this organization.

How do you get all this material into three acts of singing? In "X," the answer is that you pack it very tightly, almost to the bursting point, and you let the opera run a bit longer than the ideal length because there really isn't anything in it that cries out to be cut. The most vulnerable section, probably, is the first scene in which young Malcolm learns of his father's death. With the major exception of Malcolm, most of the characters in that scene are not further developed in the opera, and the themes of later scenes are rather different. But the material is good in itself, musically and theatrically, and it shows graphically how Malcolm's life was launched on its turbulent course.

The other basic problem in the material, viewed in the context of standard operas, is its lack of significant romantic interest. The only women in "X" are peripheral to the central action, which is political and ideological. The ideological content, along with the lack of romantic complications, sometimes makes "X" sound a little bit like an oratorio rather than an opera. Such lines as Malcolm's "Allah does not teach us/ To suffer more and more./ Allah does not teach us/ To fight white man's wars" can trace their lineage directly back to the oratorios of Handel.

But in this production, the operatic quality of "X" is clearly brought out by the effective staging of Rhoda Levine. Given what must have been a minimal budget, she effectively uses the resources available: simple props and the bodies of the performers. A row of chairs, used for the various meetings that make up most of the opera's scenes, is cleverly transformed into a row of prison cells by having men crouch behind them, clutching the backs like iron bars, in the background of Malcolm's interrogation scene. The movements of the chorus (which also sings superbly, by the way) are choreographed into richly expressive patterns. Atmosphere is created by the constant presence (and fine performances) of people only marginally involved in the plot: the police, who always hover ominously on the periphery and sometimes rush directly into the heart of the action; a reporter and photographer who dogged Malcolm's footsteps in his later years; members of the Nation of Islam, street people, hangers-on. They establish an environment that makes scenery unnecessary.

The opening-night performance in Philadelphia's historic Walnut Street Theatre had two notable problems -- besides the city's newspaper strike, which did not seriously cut down attendance. The auditorium's acoustics (and, occasionally, the balance of voices and orchestra) seemed less than ideal, though the diction came across with much more clarity after Act 1, in which the performers were still coming to terms with their performing space.

More serious was the loss of Michael Smartt, originally cast in the title role, who became ill and had to withdraw in the last week of rehearsals. A substitute was found in Avery Brooks, who had sung parts of the opera in earlier workshop presentations. Brooks (a professional actor as well as a singer and pianist) is currently costarring as "Hawk" in ABC-TV's detective series "Spenser: For Hire," which is shot on location in Boston. During the final rehearsals, he would commute from Boston, where he did television work in the daytime, to Philadelphia, where he rehearsed and performed opera at night. On opening night, he still had not memorized his entire part and had to read some sections of the final act from a score. The effect (reinforcing the oratorio atmosphere of "X") was somewhat mitigated by the fact that a lot of his material in this segment consists of public speeches, which could have been read from a text.

Operas based on the lives of historic characters have been part of the repertoire since 1642, when Monteverdi brought out "The Coronation of Poppea," based on episodes in the life of Nero. But "X," which presents a rather detailed survey of the life of a man who should still be alive, seems to be something new. In one way or another, it calls to mind several recent operas: "Satyagraha," by Philip Glass, drawn from the life of Gandhi; "Willie Stark," by Carlisle Floyd, in which the central character is a thinly disguised Huey Long, and "Harriet, The Woman Called Moses," by Thea Musgrave, which deals with the life of Harriet Tubman.

But the Davises have given themselves a more challenging assignment than can be found in any of those operas. Glass did not seriously tackle Gandhi's life as a dramatic text; his libretto is unrelated to the mimed stage action, being drawn from ancient Hindu scriptures and sung in Sanskrit. In the other two operas, the lives of Long and Tubman were both fictionalized -- adapted into forms that fit more easily into operatic conventions.

"X" attempts to present Malcolm as he was, in all his dimensions. The musical setting stylizes the material somewhat, slows it down and simplifies it. An operatic setting, like a movie treatment, always does this to literary material. It can be argued that, for maximum success at the box office, the Davises might have stylized and simplified even further -- made "X" into something more like traditional operas. But one cannot help admiring the thoroughness and integrity they have brought to their effort.

Ultimately, the material of "X" is more epic than lyric; in this sense, but even more intensely, it presents the composer the same challenge as "Willie Stark." Anthony Davis answers the challenge, as Carlisle Floyd did, with music placed completely at the service of the words, often submerging its lyric impulses as it controls and intensifies the dramatic flow of the dialogue.

He draws on the rich tradition of black music only sparingly, mostly for jazz as a backdrop for Malcolm's early life of crime. Most other music in the American black tradition is at least partly drawn from a Christian context and not really appropriate, perhaps, for a Muslim. The remainder of the opera's music is drawn from the modern classical idiom bordering at times on atonality. It is superbly functional theatrical music, but it will sometimes leave unsatisfied the traditional opera-lover who expects a show-stopping aria every 20 minutes or so.

A large and expert cast (with most singers taking two or more roles) has been assembled for this production, including quite a few performers from the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Porgy and Bess" or the Virginia Opera's production of "Harriet." At least one outstanding performer deserves to be mentioned. Thomas Young fills superbly two sharply contrasting roles: "Street," the underworld character who leads young Malcolm into a life of crime and Elijah, who leads him out of it.

"X" will have its final performance here tonight.