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

Poliuto, Glyndebourne

Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.

Carmen by ENO

Dystopic vision of Carmen, brought to life by vibrantly gripping performances

Pacific Opera Project Presents Ariadne auf Naxos

Pacific Opera Project, a small Los Angeles company, presented a production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Ebell Club with an excellent group of young singers at the beginning of what should be good careers.

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

Six people, dressed in ordinary clothing, sitting in a row at desks adorned only with microphones and glasses of water, and talking for ninety minutes: is it opera?

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The spring concert of Rising Stars in Concert, sponsored by and featuring current members of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, showcased a number of talents that will no doubt continue to grace the stages of the world’s operatic theaters.

The Singers Sparkle in New York Opera Exchange’s Carmen

New York Opera Exchange’s production of Carmen from May 8th to 10th highlighted that which opera devotees have been saying for years: Opera, far from being dead, is vibrant and evolving.

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

I have sometimes lamented the preference of Ian Page’s Classical Opera for concert performances and recordings over staged productions, albeit that their renditions of eighteenth-century operas and vocal works are unfailingly stylish, illuminating and supported by worthy research.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

Manitoba Opera: Turandot

There’s little doubt that Puccini’s Turandot is a flawed, illogical fairytale. Yet it continues to resonate today with its undying “love shall conquer all” ethos, where even the most heinous crimes may be forgiven by that which makes the world go ‘round.

Mariachi Opera El Pasado Nunca se Termina Comes to San Diego

On April 25, 2015, San Diego Opera presented it’s second Mariachi opera: El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished) by Jose “Pepe” Martinez, Leonard Foglia and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

Antonio Pappano: Royal Opera House Orchestral Concerts

Ambition achieved! Antonio Pappano brought the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House out of the pit and onto the stage, the centre of attention in their own right.

Bedřich Smetana: Dalibor, Barbican Hall

Jiří Bělohlávek’s annual Czech opera series at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO continued with Bedřich Smetana’s Dalibor.

Orlando Explores Art Without Boundaries

R.B. Schlather’s production of Handel’s Orlando asks the enigmatic question: Where do the boundaries of performance art begin, and where do they end?

The Virtues of Things

A good number of recent shorter operas, particularly those performed in this country, made a stronger impression with their libretti than their scores.

Król Roger, Royal Opera

It has taken almost 89 years for Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger to reach the stage of Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera Celebrates 50 Years of Great Singing

San Diego Opera, the company that General Manager Ian Campbell had scheduled for demolition, proved that it is alive and singing as beautifully as ever. Its 2015 season was cut back slightly and management has become a bit leaner, but the company celebrated its fiftieth season in fine style with a concert that included many of the greatest arias ever written.

Hercules vs Vampires: Film Becomes Opera!

In the early sixties, Italian film director Mario Bava was making pictures with male body builders whose well oiled physiques appeared spectacular on the screen.

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

Tansy Davies: Between Worlds (world premiere)

An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Jarrod Lee (Old Joe) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski]
24 Apr 2010

Shadowboxer — The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

The Shadowboxer project, an opera about the life of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, began as an idea in director Leon Major’s mind twenty years ago.

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: Jarrod Lee (Old Joe) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski]

 

That idea came to fulfillment this week at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Major, director of the Maryland Opera Studio, gave this reason for the project’s prolonged genesis: “I knew that I wanted to do an opera on the life of this great American hero. The question was—when would I find the right composer/librettist team to make this work?”

He found that team two years ago. Inspired by the work of Frank Proto, composer-in-residence of the Cincinnati Symphony, he called Proto to discuss the project. Soon afterward, Proto and his librettist partner, John Chenault, were commissioned to write Shadowboxer.

The project that then began to unfold was one of enormous complexity. The initial focus, however, was a simple question: Joe Louis the boxer was an American hero, but was Joe Louis the man equally heroic? This issue is the focal point of the opera and the most poignant element of the production. Major, Proto and Chenault force the audience to ask itself the question: does this man deserve my admiration, or even my respect?

It is a powerful question to ask. The opera does indeed pay tribute to the life of a noble man, a man whom Major, Proto and Chenault all view as a hero. But their portrayal of Louis shows a battered, broken and unstable invalid, confined to a wheelchair for the duration of the piece. In fact, the opera begins with Louis having a heart attack. It then flashes backward in time as a cast of figures from Louis’s fragmented memory drifts gradually in and out of focus. This device reveals Louis’s weakness, not his strength. He becomes a fallen hero as Major forces us to redefine our sense of what a hero really is.

Chenault uses a variety of figures to add this new dimension to the character. Similar to the way in which Alice Goodman reveals the human side of Richard Nixon in Nixon in China, Chenault wants to show the personal side of Joe. The man had friends, Chenault states, from “all strata of life. He knew royalty, but he also knew the shoeshine on the corner of the street.” In Shadowboxer, we see how these different influences profoundly affected Louis as we follow two main character groups.

The first comprises real people, all of whom were close to Louis: his trainer, Jack Blackburn; his agent, John Roxborough; his manager, Julian Black; his wife, Marva; and his mother, Lillie. These characters force Louis to confront the human element in his life—how his actions, fame, and fortune affect those around him. We witness the true love of his mother and of his wife, and the loyal support of his entourage.

In contrast, Chenault also includes a large chorus, composed partially of different groups of caricatures representing the types of people who had a negative impact on Louis. There are three beauties, all of whom successfully seduce Louis and abuse his famous generosity. There are also three fickle reporters who capitalize on both his successes and his failures.

_MG_3070.png

The contrasting elements in Louis’s life are echoed in Proto’s score. The music to Shadowboxer is extraordinarily challenging. When the singers received their first version of piano-vocal scores over a year ago, questions were asked: “Will anyone know if I don’t sing the right notes?” and even more importantly, “What are the right notes?!”

These questions arose because the score is mostly atonal, resulting in vocal lines that are difficult for the singers to navigate, tune and memorize. Chorus members have the added challenge of having to hold their parts against those of their highly dissonant neighbors. These parts often enter on a pitch that is dissonant with the pitches already being sung, without the benefit of an aural cue from the orchestra. The singers not only meet these challenges, but are able, despite the atonal crunch, to create a canvas of haunting beauty. The dissonance that pervades the music adds to the portrayal of the nebulous nature of Louis’s mind.

Apart from the musical difficulties that result from learning an atonal opera, conductor Tim Long faced the additional challenge of having to coordinate the normal pit orchestra, soloists and chorus with an onstage jazz band, offstage chorus, and onstage jazz instrumentalists. A single conductor (even with multiple monitors projecting Long’s image to the singers, both on- and offstage) proved insufficient, so assistant conductor Michael Ingram was called upon to conduct the offstage groups. Ingram had to watch Long on a television monitor and conduct — with a glow stick, no less — ahead of that image, in order for the alignment to sound correctly in the hall. After many rehearsals spent perfecting the timing, these different musical elements combine to form a wonderful tapestry upon which the Louis story is told.

Several of the soloists deliver noteworthy performances that deserve special mention. Carmen Balthrop is captivating as Lillie, Louis’s mother. She sings a gripping aria about the pain of a mother watching her son do battle in the ring. With stunning emotional power, Adrienne Webster (Marva) captures the audience in a fiery aria chastising Louis’s promiscuity.

Jarrod Lee is superior in both his singing and acting as Old Joe, the most difficult role in the opera. He portrays the frail Louis who watches all of the action, interacting with the figures from his past as he floats from memory to memory. Never breaking his intense focus, Lee provides visceral reactions as he gains insight into his own life. Especially during the second act, a large musical burden is placed upon the Old Joe character. Lee navigates the difficult singing with masterful skill, and brings depth and honesty to the role.

Equally compelling are Major’s directorial decisions. He deals with the parallel time-frames of the opera in two significant and related ways. First, he keeps the chorus onstage at all times. This chorus includes the soloists who portray the opera’s other major characters. Second, Major masks all of the ensemble members; they unmask only to assume a solo role. These devices allow Major to deploy a larger chorus, have characters drift into and out of Louis’s mind in a fluid fashion, and keep the idea of each of these characters present throughout the work. In this way, Major is able to manipulate time, seamlessly integrating the present with scenes from Louis’s past. Major’s masked chorus is an excellent solution to a difficult problem, and creates a clear picture for the audience.

This chorus creates an especially memorable first scene when it is seated onstage and Louis wheels his way among its members. As Louis passes, the masked figures turn and lean towards him, then slowly re-center themselves after he moves away. This places Louis in a type of purgatory where he is held by spirits. The journey that we then begin with Louis becomes a necessary one for him to regain understanding in his life.

The chorus is the first of a series of successful visual elements in the opera. Costume designer David Roberts artfully dresses each character in varied shades of grey. The only color is found in Louis’s red-checkered bathrobe—a subtle and constant reminder that the action takes place in Louis’s memory. The set is also a unique design that allows for three hanging screens along the back of the stage. Throughout the opera, the screens reflect commentary on the action as relevant pictures and video are projected upon them. Projection designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White display flashes of newspaper headlines hailing Louis’s boxing exploits, quotes from his competitors that added edge to Louis’s competitive fire, and swirling smoke during periods where he fights to regain clarity of memory.

The use of projection is sparing, though sometimes too overt. For instance, at the end of the opening scene described above, each of the main characters stands and unmasks while his or her name is projected above. The resulting introduction of the protagonists feels forced, especially given that Chenault seamlessly weaves character introduction and plot development in the scenes that follow. The projections are most effective when they add to the liveliness of Louis’s post- fight celebrations by flashing news headlines and photos of revelers in Harlem.

Frank Proto and John Chenault’s Shadowboxer pursues a noble social goal. Like another modern opera, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, it explores the question of race; like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, it examines the citizen’s relationship to the state. But at its heart, Leon Major explains, “It is not an opera about a boxer; it is an opera about a man who makes his living as a boxer.” In Shadowboxer, we are provided with a transcendent view inside the mind of a great, and fallen, American hero.

John Devlin
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):