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.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
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.
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.
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.
University of Maryland