Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the Proms - Sir Simon Rattle

Prom 46: Schoenberg's Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and Thomas Quasthoff. And three wonderful choirs - the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Orfeó Català from Barcelona, with Chorus Master Simon Halsey, Rattle's close associate for 35 years.

Dunedin Consort perform Bach's St John Passion at the Proms

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

MG_3157.png

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):