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A scene from Shadowboxer [Photo courtesy of University of Maryland]
24 Apr 2010

Shadowboxer — The Inner Life of Joe Louis

An opera about boxer Joe Louis might seem like a futile undertaking: according to 1930s New York Times reporter Meyer Berger, “Joe Louis avoids meeting people, hates conversation (even fight talk) and says less than any man in sports…”

Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault

Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park.

Above: A scene from Shadowboxer

All photos courtesy of University of Maryland — College Park


Despite the countless articles on Louis’s life and career that appeared in newspaper sports pages and gossip columns of the 1930s through the 50s, his 1978 autobiography, My Life, was the only public statement the boxer ever made about his personal life. The nature of opera is to delve into human psyche, but we know so little about Joe’s innermost thoughts and feelings — how could it be possible to write an opera about one of organized sports’ most notoriously silent figures?

Composer Frank Proto, librettist John Chenault, and director Leon Major struck out to do just that. Shadowboxer is an opera that addresses the issues of racial stereotyping and segregation, the blessing and curse of modern celebrity, and one man’s struggle to overcome his inner demons to become a hero to millions of his fellow Americans. As an elderly Louis (a role split between Jarrod Lee as Old Joe, Duane Moody as his younger self, and Nickolas Vaughn as Joe the Boxer) looks back on his life, he remembers both the tragedies and triumphs he experienced as an African-American in a sport dominated by white athletes. The opera is comprised of flashbacks that occur in Old Joe’s mind, and many of these memories bleed into the character’s reality. These trips down memory lane focus on the boxer’s early career, Joe’s marriage to Marva Trotter (Adrienne Webster), and his famous bout with German boxer Max Schmeling (Peter Burroughs). Shadowboxer chronicles Joe’s philanthropic contributions to the US armed forces during WWII, the discrimination he experienced during his enlistment in the US Army, and his financial ruin at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service. The opera fast-forwards to Louis’s descent into substance abuse and madness and the revival of his celebrity status in his later years. Though he led a turbulent and somewhat sad life, Joe Louis’s ascension to the throne of the world heavyweight boxing championship made him a true American hero at a time when the country was firmly divided along racial lines.

Librettist Chenault sees the title Shadowboxer as having a double meaning: “[The term] shadowboxer fits with the boxing world… but in particular reference to Joe [it makes us ask] how do we peer behind the curtain, how do we move that aside and look at the interior life of Joe?” An exploration of the mind and spirit of such a well-known but private individual is both a confining and liberating task. To interpret the factual account of a life through the medium of opera is, in some respects, liberating; through music and words, Proto and Chenault create an emotional context for historical events. On the other hand, the distillation of a real person with complex emotions into an operatic performance of a few hours is somewhat constricting. Chenault, a poet and playwright, studied Louis’s autobiography, and much of his libretto comes from Joe’s own words. Proto, Chenault, and Major chose to place the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight at the center of the work and present the rest of Joe’s story as an ascent to and decent from this historic event.

The music of Shadowboxer sets this work apart in the world of modern opera. Proto’s inclusion of an on-stage eight-piece jazz combo in addition to the full pit orchestra is unprecedented, and he uses this ensemble to great effect. It is not uncommon for jazz to inspire operatic music – composers like Max Brand and Ernst Krenek of the German Zeitopern tradition incorporated elements of jazz and popular music into their works of the 1920s and 30s, and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess makes use of jazz rhythms throughout its entire score. Rather than taking on a secondary role, however, jazz exists side by side with traditional operatic music in Shadowboxer. Although this work does not feature any 1930s or 40s jazz standards, Proto says its music is “descended” from the music of the time when Joe Louis was in his prime, and the onstage jazz band takes on a life separate from its counterpart in the pit.


Proto’s imaginative score is a versatile vehicle for the University of Maryland Opera Studio. Featuring a cast of performers, including graduate students in the UM Opera Studio, undergraduate voice majors, Opera Studio alumni, invited guest artists, and UM faculty (Professor Carmen Balthrop is stunning in her role as Joe’s mother, Lillie Brooks) Shadowboxer is accompanied by student instrumentalists. This world-class production leaves no doubt in my mind that these musicians are professionals of the highest caliber. Webster and Balthrop give outstanding vocal performances, as does VaShawn McIlwain in the role of Joe’s trainer, Jack Blackburn. All of the soloists are extremely competent, although some have problems with projection. Proto’s choice to add eight extra instrumentalists on stage level places them in direct competition with the singers for that sonic space, and some do no project well over the jazz combo accompaniment. While Lee’s portrayal of Old Joe is beautifully acted and impeccably sung, he is sometimes overpowered by the instrumentalists. At times, the audience is forced to rely on the closed captioning shown on screens placed to the left and right of the stage to follow the dialogue. This necessity becomes distracting, and I found myself watching the screens during the scenes featuring Joe’s paramours (Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis, and Amanda Opuszynski) to catch all the words. Balance issues aside, the cast members do an excellent job communicating with the audience through their commanding stage presence. The transcendent nature of this abstract work requires performers that connect with the audience, and this group rises to the challenge.

The production of Shadowboxer exists firmly in the tradition of modern opera. The set features a deconstructed boxing ring, complete with lights and ropes strung at odd angles, and the canvas is represented by three large white screens that hang at the back of the stage. In addition to providing context for an opera about a boxer, this set provides a backdrop for the projection designs of Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White. The practice of replacing sets with projections has been widely used in modern opera productions of the past decade, but director Major had a different vision for the incorporation of this technique. Rather than illustrating Louis’s life through a series of images, Malone and White’s projections serve as snapshots of his memory that support the singers and provide a context for the action. The projections contribute an element of realism by weaving familiar images (like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Europe) in with Old Joe’s abstract recollections. Projections also facilitate an imaginary exchange between Old Joe and boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson. Ali and Johnson are represented by a trumpet (Brent Madsen) and tenor saxophone (Anthony Bonomo), rather than singers, and their words are projected on the screen backdrops. Bonomo’s and Madsen’s improvised solos are masterful and compelling, but their scene still seems out of place, as it has no parallel in the rest of the work. A return to the quasi-reality of Joe’s memory seems confusing after this unreal exchange. Even in an opera that takes place almost entirely in one character’s head, this sequence, in my opinion, is too abstract.

Overall, the UM Opera Studio has staged an excellent production. In the words of conductor Tim Long, “It’s really nice to be working on a new opera...because you don’t have to fit the mold of what people have done for centuries. We can create that mold.” This work is a breakthrough modern opera, and hopefully future productions will follow in the footsteps of the visionary artists who created Shadowboxer.

Jessica Abbazio
University of Maryland

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