An inside look at the Joe Louis opera, Shadowboxer

Composer Frank Proto and Librettist John Chenault and director Leon Major reveal what it takes to bring the life of boxing icon Joe Louis to the opera stage.Over the centuries, operas have been written about kings and queens, lords and ladies, soldiers and sailors, artists and craftsmen. But no one has ever written an opera about a boxer. Until now. This past weekend and next, the University of Maryland will present the world premiere performances of a brand new American opera, Shadowboxer, in its beautiful Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Composed by Frank Proto with a libretto by John Chenault, Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis, is the story of the legendary pugilist, a self-made working class hero whose boxing exploits transformed him into an almost mythic American figure. In this opera, these longtime friends and collaborators are charting new operatic territory indeed.

On the surface at least, the subject matter of Shadowboxer might seem a bit odd. But Chenault is quick to lay that perception to rest. “Operas are about people who are bigger than life,” he says, “and what could be more operatic than boxing? It’s highly theatrical. The players are larger than life and very flamboyant. Like kings and queens, they’ve become entertainment royalty. They have their own entourages. So the world of boxing is really operatic in the classic sense of the term. These people are not just fighters. They’re entertainers. “

In bringing Joe Louis to the opera stage, Chenault had to cut through the legend and discover Joe Louis the man. “I wanted to focus on the human, what made him so special. But I didn’t want to lose sight of the man. I explored the vagaries of his life, his womanizing, his high spending ways. Joe loved having a good time. He didn’t emote much in public, but he was wired. He was a multifaceted character and that’s what I tried to bring out,” he says.

Chenault seems to be the right man for this job. He’s written librettos, plays, and poetry and is a lifelong fan of jazz. It’s the picture-perfect background for building a book for a new opera whose music and plot seem to emerge full-blown from elements of improvisatory jazz.

Born in 1914 in rural Alabama, Joe Louis rose from poverty to become the acknowledged world heavyweight champion boxer in 1937. In the process, he systematically overcame the numerous obstacles stacked against him, including racial and nationalistic prejudices, to become an international celebrity known reverentially—and accurately—as the “Brown Bomber,” an obvious allusion to his considerable fistic powers.

His dynamic reputation in the ring was ultimately instrumental in elevating the status of boxing worldwide. He was an inspiration to generations of African-Americans who shared in his pride and achievements. Through him they could see firsthand that there was indeed a way to escape the Jim Crow box that had been firmly set in place since Reconstruction.

Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes vividly recalled the significance of Joe Louis’ triumphs to black Americans in the 1930s. “Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years,” he wrote, “even before he became champion, thousands of colored Americans on relief or W.P.A, and poor, would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe’s one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions—or on mine.”

The Brown Bomber’s second matchup with German heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1938 was the stuff of legend. Schmeling, who’d soundly defeated a surprised Louis in their first meeting in 1936, was pumped up in the media by the Nazi regime as the Aryan antithesis to this crude American Negro puncher. Furious, the American sports media countered with their own patriotic campaign promoting Joe Louis as a genuine American hero—a remarkable first in a United States that had yet to accept African-Americans as fully equal citizens. Louis smashed Schmeling in a bout lasting little more than two minutes. Ironically, he and Schmeling eventually became fast friends later in life.

Louis reigned as champ for some 11 years before his eventual decline, and even served in the U.S. Armed forces in the Second World War during his tenure as champ. Always affable in public, his private life proved to be a mess. Much of what he earned was siphoned off by hangers-on. His womanizing caused him constant problems. And worst of all, he was cavalier about his tax situation. An enormous debt to the IRS came to haunt him throughout the remainder of his life.

In the end, the great Joe Louis died broke. Fortunately, his old enemy-turned-friend, Max Schmeling, ponied up a significant contribution toward his funeral expenses in 1981, while newly-inaugurated President Ronald Reagan cut through the paperwork and made sure fellow celebrity Joe Louis, whom he knew well, was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Louis’ life story arc, as Chenault contends, is indeed the trajectory of a celebrity—the humble origins, the spectacular material success and fame, the gradual, steady, tragic decline.

That same thought crossed the mind of University of Maryland professor Leon Major some 25 years ago, not long after Louis’ burial in Arlington. Major became obsessed with the thought of bringing this storied—and tragic—American hero back to life on the operatic stage, recalling his own vivid memory of listening to the live 1938 radio broadcast of the second Louis-Schmeling matchup. But he knew that making this vision a reality was far more easily said than done.

New operas these days are a tough sell. It costs a small fortune to stage them professionally, and producers are generally hostile to advancing money for anything other than a revival of, say, South Pacific, convinced that anything else will lose them a pile of dough.

But having already been successful in producing new operas at the university, Leon concluded it was time to bring his longtime idea to life, commissioning Chenault and composer Proto to compose a new work with Joe Louis as its hero.

“The university has made this a signature event,” says Major. “This enabled us to center on a new project and drive it hard.” The result? “A brand new opera about the life of Joe Louis, who he is, what he represented. “He was an inspiration to all. However he was treated, he still kept driving forward,” says Major. Neither Major nor Chenault think it’s a stretch to make this bigger-than-life character the focal point of an opera—an art form that in itself is nearly always bigger than life as well.

In penning his libretto, though, Chenault chose to focus on the human element. “I didn’t want to lose sight of Joe Louis the man,” he says. I wanted to explore Joe’s life, its vagaries, the interaction with his career. It includes the fame and the squeaky clean public image his handlers were careful to project. But it also includes his womanizing, his lavish spending, just having a good time.”

“Joe was a multifaceted character but he didn’t emote much in public,” he continues. “I felt we needed to explore more of his life in our story telling.”

Chenault ultimately decided to adopt a flashback technique, a nonlinear approach, to flesh out Joe Louis’ life on stage. Chenault recalls his own aging father who, at the end of his life, developed Alzheimer’s disease. “As my father’s mind began to fade,” he says, “I saw that while he could vividly remember things that had happened in his distant past, his grasp of the present eluded him.”

Louis, too, had begun to deteriorate significantly near the end of his life. Chenault, by drawing on his own experiences, begins the opera’s book with “Old Joe” near death, recollecting moments of his life in flashback. “He has a keen recollection of his early years,” says Chenault. “But as his life force ebbs away, his more recent memories become more incoherent.”

Throughout the history of the genre, many of the most memorable operas have a strong book with a robust plot and unforgettable characters. But in the end, the reputation of each usually rides on the back of the composer. And in case of Shadowboxer, the composer is Frank Proto, the former longtime composer-in-residence of the Cincinnati Orchestra. Over the years, he’s become an acknowledged master of a variety of musical styles including classical, jazz, and show music. He’s even penned works for Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck during his long career.

Proto remembers receiving the original commission. “We had to start from zero, which is the usual case for an opera,” he says. “Since we already had the subject matter, we decided that John would write for a couple of months before we really got going. That way, there was something for me to begin to work with.”

“When you win a commission, a lot of thought goes into fulfilling it,” he says. “As a composer, you want to please yourself, of course. But you also want to please your employer and, ultimately, your audience, your musicians, and your artists.”

Having written many pieces on commission in Cincinnati, Proto learned that what you want to do in something new is “maybe take the musical language and push it a little further.” Steeped not only in the classical repertoire but in jazz as well, Pasco felt his skill sets were well suited for an American opera centered on a legendary black hero. “John’s libretto made things easy for me,” he says. “The lines, the words are very clear, and John even includes stage directions, all of which help to focus the musical story telling.”

Regarding the opera’s musical style, Proto offers that “I grew up playing jazz, and it’s a strong influence here.” A string player himself, he regards the string section as the base of any orchestra and evolves his music and arrangements from that baseline.

“The first notes you’ll hear in the opera are the first notes I actually composed,” he says. “The opera begins with memory, and I try to provide the setting, starting with a quiet string chord backed by a low, bass drum. “

With an opera virtually demanding jazz elements, Pasco was nonetheless a bit wary as to how to deploy them. “I wanted jazz to serve the opera. But a lot of jazz you hear in concert music today is watered down, stylized more often than not, and the jazz loses its edge,” he says. Pasco got around this in an original way. In addition to a regular small opera orchestra, he added a back stage band to handle some of the musical chores.

In another original turn, Joe occasionally has conversations with characters who never appear onstage. Instead, they’re impersonated by solo instruments. “In the second act, in a dialogue between Joe and Jack Johnson, Jack is represented by a tenor sax,” he says. “Mohammed Ali is represented by a trumpet with a plunger mute. Each instrument is meant to represent the voice, and each player has room for improv, allowing Joe to calibrate his responses to them. These interchanges have taken hours to rehearse,” he says.

As for the production itself, even with significant support from the University of Maryland, Shadowboxer’s budget couldn’t match that of the Metropolitan Opera. Nonetheless, the University has employed top talent to design the sets (Erhard Rom) and costuming (David Roberts).

Directing the production, Leon Major wanted to create a fluid space to support the opera’s nonlinear, non-narrative structure, and Rom—who also created the sets for the Wolf Trap Opera’s highly successful premiere of Volpone a few seasons back, was able to produce just that with a gray industrial background that comes to life organically by reflecting energetic projected imagery.

“It’s a landscape of the mind,” says Major. All the figures, the characters, arise out of Joe’s imagination. In his libretto, John wrote in specific suggestions for projected scenery, including ideas for the jazz band onstage and even some lighting cues. That was immensely helpful in putting this all together.

One special challenge for Major involved a decidedly non-operatic sport—how many opera singers at the University of Maryland or anywhere else—know how to box? The university environment proved to offer the perfect solution to the problem. The opera’s cast observed the Maryland Terps Boxing Club in action, watching sparring matches and actually getting some real-time training in boxing techniques. To develop their roles and stage personalities further, they also were involved in a special course designed by Major to teach boxing and stage combat.

“I think the audience will be delighted with the result of all these individual and collective efforts, with the level of imagination, says Major. “I think this opera has legs. The music and text are wonderful, and it has been a joy to direct.”

Shadowboxer’s singers and soloists have been chosen from the University’s Maryland Opera Studio (MOS). Part of the School of Music’s Voice and Opera Division, the two-year program, headed up by Major, provides a soup to nuts education and professional training for a small group (currently 17) of graduate vocalists chosen by audition. In addition to the eight second-year soloists, Shadowboxer also features first year students, and three undergrads in its chorus.

Everyone involved is highly committed to the opera’s success. “Frank and I wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves without the unbelievable support we’ve found here at the University” says Chenault. “Often, in other productions, we’ve had to work on all the details ourselves which can detract from what you really need to do. The University of Maryland does it all here. We’ve never had this level of support before. You have the people you need to get the work done, and the students here are already operating on a professional level.”

Frank Proto (composer), Leon Major (director), John Chenault (librettist) (Photo: Mike Ciesielski)

Both Chenault and Proto also appreciate the care and rehearsal time that’s gone into preparing the opera for its opening performances. “In Cincinnati, we’d get only three rehearsals, even for a new piece,” says Proto. “Here, we are constantly rehearsing, and our soloists are already young pros, deeply involved in what they’re doing. Leon has been involved in the whole process, he says. “He’s been the fulcrum of the project, and he’s been a joy to work with. Although we’re responsible for the ultimate vision of Shadowboxer, Leon has made it all possible.

Future plans for the opera? That’s always hard to determine, according to Leon. But that doesn’t mean he and others haven’t been hard at work behind the scenes. “I’ve spoken to a number of interested individuals, and we’re getting a good reception,” he says.

As for now, on Saturday, April 17th, the house lights dimmed, the performers were in their places, and a brand new American opera was unveiled at the Clarice Smith Center. You never know how a new work will turn out or how it will be received. But one thing’s for sure. With the time, effort, and hard work that’s gone into this production, the world premiere of Shadowboxer is in the best shape that it can be.

Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis, plays through April 25, 2010.

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Several free engagement events centered on Shadowboxer will be offered throughout the production’s April 17 – 25, 2010 run at the Center. Prior to the performances on April 18, 21, 23 and 25, assistant director Michael Ingram will lead interactive discussions on the musical and dramatic structure of Shadowboxer, complete with live examples from the piano. Two post-performance Talk Backs will shed additional light on this new American opera: on April 18, composer Frank Proto and librettist John Chenault will engage with the audience; the second, held after the final production on April 25, will feature the cast of Shadowboxer and Director Leon Major.]

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