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

A “CNN Opera” — Shadowboxer at UMD

The University of Maryland Opera Studio premiered a new commission this week: Shadowboxer, composed by Frank Proto, and based on the life of boxing champion Joe Louis.

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 [Photo courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]


The unexpected subject matter, juxtaposing the seedy world of boxing with the sophistication of opera, is bound to raise a few eyebrows. However, it contains topics typically found in opera: love, betrayal, sex and scandal. Every aspect of the show – music, lighting, costumes, staging, and audio-visual effects – is carefully designed to create a story which takes place in the abstract reflections of Joe’s memory. The unique subject coupled with Leon Major’s brilliant staging, an exceptional production team, and a crew of fresh, young voices, provides an intriguing and gratifying night at the opera.

The libretto, created by John Chenault, is not just a chronological biography of Joe's life; the story begins just before Joe's death. Continually jumping through time, the opera explores moments of triumph and the moments where the protagonist allows his demons to prevail. Through the journey, we are introduced to three Joe's: Old Joe in a wheelchair (Jarrod Lee), young, vibrant Joe eager to tackle the world (Duane A. Moody), and boxing Joe for the fight scenes (Nickolas Vaughn). On the surface, clear racial tensions are addressed, but there is more to Joe's story than the trials and tribulations of an African-American trying to succeed in a white world. From Joe’s perspective, we witness his vulnerability to women, his issues with the IRS, and the unjust title of democratic symbol the US media placed upon Joe during World War II. This “CNN opera” is much like John Adam’s Nixon in China, in that we see the real Joe behind the media portrayal, allowing the audience to formulate their own perceptions of Joe Louis.

As Old Joe's impending death draws near, ghosts from his past begin to haunt him. The stark stage, with large white panels and black chairs combined with a masked cast clad in gray, is very effective. The neutral palette not only enhances the ghostly quality of Joe's hazy memory, but it also allows the cast to become a part of the media machine; they become the black and white newspaper clippings that pop off the screen as Joe becomes a victim of propaganda. The cast’s recurring stage direction to freeze in time creates photographs frozen in place as Old Joe reflects on the event before him. The cast also behaves as ghosts; stoic figures that seem to float across the stage as wisps of Joe’s memory ebb and flow through his mind.

Time changing can be difficult to execute on stage; however, Leon Major and the production team accomplish it deftly. The dim lighting with swirling smoke effects places us in Old Joe’s disoriented dream-world; the impressionist-like music accompanying Old Joe, freely floating like Debussy’s Pelléas, adds to the atmosphere as he weaves his way in and out of the gray figures hovering through his mind. As soon as we are transported to a specific moment in the past, the stage lights up, masks are removed, the music finds a solid, upbeat rhythm, and the cast springs into action, just as quickly as a picture or memory can flash through one’s mind.

The stage can look quite cluttered at times; each member of the large cast has their own chair. However, besides adding to the image of Joe’s mind, cluttered with memories, the use of so many chairs is quite resourceful; they create the boxing ring and they symbolize the people in Joe’s life. As memories fade or characters pass on, the chairs are tipped over, symbolizing their departure. The clutter and confusion works particularly well during transitions into fight scenes. The movement of people and chairs, along with sound effects, cheering, and choreographed boxing fights emulates a real sporting crowd moving, shifting and alive with action.


The multi-media components are equally important in shaping the abstract images of Joe’s mind. Textured panels hung at angles provide a place to project video clips and photos, which are not merely plastered up on the wall; they are snippets of images taken from different angles. More importantly, the panels provide a backdrop for the lighting effects and shadows necessary to further express the meaning behind the opera’s title. The most effective shadow moment occurs during Marva's powerful aria in act two, sung by Adrienne Webster. As Marva expresses her frustration over loving Joe despite his infidelity, their shadows reflect her feelings even further: Joe has become a ghost to her. He is a distant and unattainable shadow of a man who used to be her husband, someone she now only sees in the news.

Marva’s stunning arias show her complete emotional breakdown as the relationship develops and falls apart. The first aria, sung in act one, is a sultry song of seduction; the lilting accompaniment with a slinky saxophone reflects Marva’s struggle between allowing herself to succumb to Joe’s sexual desires, while also trying to maintain her dignity. The second aria reflects her frustration and inability to let go of her womanizing husband. Both arias are based on the same music; however the second turns into an agitated cry with ascending chromatics in the orchestra, expressing her agony and rage about to bubble over. Her arias, much like those of Nixon’s wife Pat in Nixon in China, allow us to see the powerful and passionate woman behind the iconic man.

Other memorable characters include two sets of trios. The male reporters throw Joe on a pedestal when he’s up and kick him when he’s down. The writing, with its swagger and intense spit-fire text, underlined by angular pizzicato patterns in the strings, is reflective of a fast-paced news report, and the three singers, Andrew Owens, Andrew McLaughlin, and Colin Michael Brush, give stellar performances. Their line “You heard it hear first” appears many times throughout the opera, each time depicting a different period in Joe’s life: the excitement of his first fight, the disillusionment of his loss to Schmeling, the confusion surrounding Joe’s retirement, and the shock at his death. Three beauties (Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis and Amanda Opuszynski) create the other trio and are omnipresent; they slither and snake around Joe, begging for sex and money. All six pressure and entice Joe, shaping both his public reputation and the personal choices he makes.

Additional noteworthy performances include Lillie Brooks, Joe’s mom, played by a member of the Maryland voice faculty, Carmen Balthrop. Clearly a seasoned professional, Balthrop sets a fantastic example to the students with her effortless voice and ownership of the character. Joe’s trainer, Jack Blackburn, played by VaShawn Savoy McIlwain, is another highlight of the evening. McIlwain is tough in every sense of the word: his look, his demeanor, his expression and his voice. The man personifies everything one expects in a world-class boxing coach – smart, demanding and intimidating.

The chorus plays a rather large role; at times it becomes a character, and other times it becomes part of the orchestra. Like the music in the entire opera, their part is extremely difficult to sing. There is very little repetition, the chords are highly chromatic, and the pitches come out of nowhere. Additionally, most of their material is sung on neutral syllables, which can be extremely difficult to memorize. Their role would rival Phillip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach where the singers repeat endless arrangements of solfege syllables and numbers. However, the repetitive minimalist nature of Einstein with clear diatonic sonorities has its advantages over the atonal harmonies sung by the Shadowboxer chorus. Many of the leads also need to use a dialect appropriate for their characters, as observed in operas such as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Floyd’s Susannah. Learning this opera is no simple task, and the cast should be commended.

Despite its difficulty, I find the score to be quite remarkable as the musical layers unfold. When the balance between all the sections is right, the vocal color of the choir weaves in and out of the texture, reflecting Joe’s mind weaving in and out of insanity. The score is incredibly eclectic, combining elements of jazz, Broadway, and atonality, to name a few. In addition to the pit orchestra, Proto includes a jazz band on stage – a creative and welcome component to an opera paying homage to the time period in which Joe Louis lived. One of the many memorable moments with the jazz band includes an aria by Max Schmeling (Peter Joshua Burroughs), Germany’s propaganda puppet; it is ironic that Max’s music would be set to jazz, something the Nazis would have loathed. Like the saxophone used in Marva’s aria, jazz soloists emerge as characters as Joe continues to lose his mind in act two; he has a conversation with a trumpet and a saxophone, thinking they are former boxers talking to him from the grave.

Shadowboxer brings a fresh element to the stage. Sports fans will love the choreographed fight scenes; history buffs will enjoy the connection to social and political issues surrounding an epic American character; jazz musicians will appreciate seeing their art form performed in an uncharacteristic venue; and opera lovers will enjoy seeing dedicated, talented students perform this challenging and unique opera.

Kelly Butler
University of Maryland

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