Washington National Opera has given us a “champ” of a new music-theatre work that is as approachable and inspiring as the great American Muhammed Ali himself. Its creators have bypassed taking a biographical approach, which wouldn’t have worked in this medium anyway, but have crafted something lean, impressionistic and emotionally powerful.
Don’t get me wrong, the history of this icon is still there but seen compressed, at a particular time, through the eyes of an adoring young boy, who would become a lifelong fan. Young Davis, suffering from his mother’s death and the horrible bullying of kids at school, becomes isolated in grief, shame and loneliness. Then, it’s as if the boxer, in the prime of his boxing career, swoops into his life like Superman to the rescue.
Based on the book, The Tao of Muhammed Ali and related stories by Davis Miller, the great boxer joins the young Davis in his living room as a flickering presence on the television and saves the lonely boy by his courage and charismatic presence.
Anyone old enough to have lived through the second half of the twentieth century will come to this work with memories of one Cassius Clay, who challenged and beat not just his opponents in the ring but broke barriers and expectations many people in our society had time and time again. He changed his name and changed his religion. He became a conscientious objector and spoke out against the Viet Nam war. He spoke out on race. He was stripped of his medals and incensed many who thought he should not carry his fight outside a boxing ring or use his fame as a voice for social justice.
In America, he became the master of the media soundbite. But, when he traveled to Asia and Africa, he dropped his strut and posing persona and spoke mildly and respectfully for, as he said, he was a Muslim. Years later, diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he took on a new and relentless opponent. The champ never gave up. In 1992, he indeed made a big comeback carrying the torch for America in the Olympics.
All of this serves as backstory, but don’t come to the show expecting historical recaps with film footage or a score interlaced with snatches of pop tunes like “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” What would the language and musical style be, I wondered as I approached this work.
A great curtain fills the stage, painted like a Monet, suggesting blue sky with clouds perhaps, and a freestanding door. Right up front, this spare set by Paul Taylor indicates this will be a show about metaphor. With such simple means, the designer evokes the title itself, approaching – not just Ali – but the self, self as realized through the author and the author’s other, himself as young boy, and in turn we, the audience, are challenged to approach our “selves.”
When the music starts, we get long held chords on strings. Composer D.J. Sparr seems to be conjuring something expansive and American in the tradition of Aaron Copland. A man, sitting on a bench downstage of the door, begins to sing. The character of Davis (David Kravitz), as a grown up, prepares to approach Ali’s door to meet his hero and interview him.
The libretto by Mark Campbell and Davis Miller is as lean and emblematic as the set. The words are spare, and the contemporary score moves forward with uncommonly comfortable intervals for the singers. I felt there was really no need for the surtitles, which were distracting. They seemed trappings of another kind of opera.
Kravitz as Davis sings, trying to gather his courage “What could happen? He slams the door in my face? What could happen? He slams the door in my face after knocking me on my butt.” The audience laughs and gets comfortable with this vernacular style.
Mysteriously the door opens, and Ali stands there, older, filled out, his left arm with that recognizable palsy. Davis walks into a living room, the home of Ali’s mother. From this moment on, time dissolves, and the opera moves forward juxtaposing time and place between the first interview and the childhood of Davis. The audience totally accepts the modern stylistic device of having young and adult Davis on stage together and singing simultaneously. Similarly, Davis’ mother and Ali’s mother sing, praying for someone to watch over their sons. Sparr mines this and many other parallel moments for rich echoes musically and emotionally.
The cast handles the material superbly. Everyone inhabits the skin of his or her character and makes the musical phrasing, the cues, and the harmonies of this new opera all seem effortless and thus brings the audience in fully.
The show does not try to imitate life, but rather the ensemble has forged a newly integrated interpretation. Instead of setting the title character in the rather high range of Muhammed Ali’s own voice, Sparr has composed the role for the deep and powerful bass of Soloman Howard. Excuse the pun, but what a knock out this guy is. Though a young man, he conveys the debilitation of the once heavyweight champion with just the tremulous shake of the left arm. We even get to see Howard in flashback dressed for the ring, “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.” This singer actor has done due diligence to sculpt his body to a fighting readiness while still keeping the singer’s necessary relaxation.
Sparr has worked to set the other central role, Davis-as-adult, for baritone Kravitz to capture that clear, strong voice, and feature the very notes where the man’s body shakes with aching power. Kravitz serves the score well, with intelligence and a deep connection to the material. His voice works without strain in the high notes of wonder and vulnerability while keeping the full power of his lower notes in a beautiful blend.
For the tenor role, Sparr uses the character of Davis’ father and has written beautifully for Tim Augustin. As Roy Miller, Augustin has created with very little stage time a most compelling character who, lost in grief himself over the death of his wife, finds himself helpless but undaunted in trying to connect with his troubled son. His aria “We got to make changes” is wrenchingly beautiful as is the gesture of bringing his son’s head together against his to comfort and bond.
The two women in this opera are also not given much stage time, but it doesn’t negate from their powerful, symbolic presence. Soprano Aundi Marie Moore plays Ali’s mother Odessa. Almost every time she enters, she sings a motif that moves into a vocalise both comforting and strong in the tradition of great American spirituals. She displays great warmth in her singing as well as a range as high and deep as the Grand Canyon. It’s a joy to hear this voice.
Catherine Martin sings the role of Sara, Davis’ mother who dies early in her son’s life. Her love and her prayers continue beyond the grace. The duet she shares with Moore makes me yearn for more material for both these lovely sopranos. On the other hand, the balance of this piece of music-theatre is so exquisite one would hate to stretch it out and risk losing its power.
With the inclusion of a boy soprano, sung with bell tones and confident projection by Ethan McKelvain, age 13, making his operatic and stage debut, the piece evokes something of the well-known of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and promises to achieve its popularity and longevity.
First time directing an opera, Nicole Watson has done a wonderful job bringing together the elements of this new work. She has supported the ensemble throughout so that the work of the singers is never compromised but we get to see full physical and emotional commitment to the telling of the story.
The work was so satisfying on many levels, but how I wanted to jump up and rescue the orchestra from the pit to hear what made those sounds. Sparr’s musicality is matched by his inventive instrumentation to get the range of colors he heard for the piece.(I learned later that this included bowing a marimba and incorporating a kind of gamelan made of metal scraps from Home Depot.)
I end with two questions. Is it opera? And whom is it for? I’d like to suggest we retire the Latin “opera” for new American music-theatre works – so that people would not be deterred from seeing this inspiring piece. By people, it is indeed for all ages.
Some audience members thought it would prove a successful school piece, with its themes of bullying, adolescent loneliness, and the need for heroes. Well, yes, but we all seek inspiration and all of us need heroes. Approaching Ali offers a ringside seat to everyone.
Approaching Ali . Composed by D.J. Sparr . Libretto by Mark Campbell and Davis Miller . Based on The Tao of Muhammed Ali by Davis Miller . Conducted by Steven Jarvi . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
This opera was performed June 8 and 9, 2013 at The Kennedy Center.