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

A stellar Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. Originally a Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss hybrid, the 1916 version presented in Vienna ditched Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which had preceded an operatic telling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, and replaced it with a Prologue in which buffa met seria as competing factions prepared to present an entertainment for ‘the richest man in Vienna’. He’s a man who has ordered two entertainments, to follow an epicurean feast, and he wants these dramatic digestifs served simultaneously.

PROM 5: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Stefan Herheim’s production of Debussy’s magnificent 1902 opera for Glyndebourne has not been universally acclaimed. The Royal Albert Hall brought with it, in this semi-staged production, a different set of problems - and even imitated some of the production’s original ones, notably the vast shadow of the organ which somewhat replicates Glyndebourne’s 1920’s Organ Room, and by a huge stretch of the imagination the forest in which so much of the opera’s action is set.

Thought-Provoking Concert in Honor of Bastille Day

Sopranos Elise Brancheau and Shannon Jones, along with pianists Martin Néron and Keith Chambers, presented a thrilling evening of French-themed music in an evening entitled: “Salut à la France,” at the South Oxford Space in Brooklyn this past Saturday, July 14th.

Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Polly Graham’s vision of Dido and Aeneas is earthy, vigorous and gritty. The artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera has overseen a production which brings together professional soloists, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a cast of more than 80 south-east London adults and children for this, the 12th, annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera.

Summer madness and madcap high jinxs from the Jette Parker Young Artists

The operatic extracts which comprised this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance seemed to be joined by a connecting thread - madness: whether that was the mischievousness of Zerbinetta’s comedy troupe, the insanity of Tom Rakewell, the metaphysical distress of Hamlet, or the mayhem prompted by Isabella’s arrival at Mustafà’s Ottoman palace, the ‘insanity’ was equally compelling.

Mefistofele at Orange’s Chorégies

This is the one where a very personable devil tells God that mankind is so far gone it isn’t worth his time to bother corrupting it further.

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

A Choral Trilogy at the Aix Festival

What Seven Stones (the amazing accentus / axe 21), and Dido and Aeneas (the splendid Ensemble Pygmalion) and Orfeo & Majnun (the ensemble [too many to count] of eleven local amateur choruses) share, and virtually nothing else, is spectacular use of chorus.

Vintage Audi — Parsifal, Kaufmann, Pape

From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi. The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through.

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Fledermaus Pops the Cork in Iowa

Like a fizzy bottle of champagne, Des Moines Metro Opera uncorked a zesty tasting of Johan Strauss’s vintage Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Des Moines’ Ravishing Rusalka

Let me get right to the point: This is the Rusalka I have been waiting for all my life.

L'Ange de feu (The Fiery Angel)
in Aix

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is rarely performed. This new Aix Festival production to be shared with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki exemplifies why.

Ariane à Naxos (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Aix

Yes, of course British stage director Katie Mitchell served up Richard Strauss’ uber tragic Ariadne on Naxos at a dinner table. Over the past few years Mme. Mitchell has staged quite a few household tragedies at the Aix Festival, mostly at dinner tables, though some on doorsteps.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

Madama Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

The Princeton Festival brings a run of three high-quality opera performances to town each summer, alternating between a modern opera and a traditional warhorse. John Adams’ Nixon in China has been announced for next summer. So this year Princeton got Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for which the Festival assembled an impressive cast and delivered a polished performance.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

A scene from Shadowboxer [Photo by Cory Weaver/University of Maryland - College Park]
24 Apr 2010

Shadowboxer — A Tormented Joe Louis

From the Maryland Opera Studio comes a riveting new opera that transforms the life of American boxing legend Joe Louis (“The Brown Bomber”) into an epic tale of human struggle, triumph, and failure.

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 by Cory Weaver/University of Maryland — College Park

 

Directed by Leon Major and authored by librettist John Chenault and composer Frank Proto, this work will capture the imagination of opera lovers and sports fans alike.

Shadowboxer tells the story of Joe Louis, the African-American boxing legend who held the heavyweight boxing title from 1937 until 1949. Despite widespread racism in the United States during this period, Louis became a national hero. In his fights against German boxer Max Schmelling in particular, Louis’s life in the ring came to symbolize the larger political struggle between democracy and Nazism that was central to World War II. Thus many Americans tuned in to Louis’s fights in hopes that his victory in the ring could also signal a political and ideological victory for America and the Allies. His story came to symbolize something greater than one man’s journey, and the far-reaching significance of his life was what first captured the imagination of Maryland Opera Studio’s Artistic Director Leon Major.

Ask Major about the genesis of Shadowboxer, and he will inevitably recount his childhood memories of the famous 1938 rematch between Louis and Schmelling, during which Louis scored a knockout in the first round. Thus his fascination with Louis dates back many years. In fact, Major had been toying with the idea of an opera based upon the life of Louis for over two decades before approaching John Chenault and Frank Proto. Their creative collaboration spanned a period of roughly two years, and culminated with a series of performances at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center that began on April 17th and runs through April 25th.

Though Shadowboxer is based upon the life of a boxing legend, it is not confined to the boxing ring. Rather, it is a psychological drama that takes place in the landscape of Joe Louis’s mind. During the final moments of his life at his Las Vegas home, an elderly Louis is forced to confront a barrage of vivid and painful memories that become increasingly fragmented and incoherent as death draws near. The opera is a portrait of Louis’s final moments and the nightmarish fantasies that he must grapple with as he reflects upon his trials, triumphs, and failures. Chenault transforms the life of this American hero into a sweeping tale of human struggle, victory and defeat, suffering and joy.

The musical score of Shadowboxer is equally broad in its scope. Frank Proto drew upon his decades of experience as a composer and performer of classical music, jazz, and even Broadway show tunes to create a musical language that is as multifaceted as his musical background. Far from being a stylistic hodgepodge, however, Proto’s score captures the phantasmagoric nature of Louis’s consciousness and is an apt musical counterpart to the drama onstage. Shifting between a dissonant 21st-century idiom and a jazz-infused style that draws inspiration from American popular music of the 1930s and 40s, Proto’s score reflects the sounds of Louis’s heyday as they would be remembered in the murky recesses of the boxer’s deteriorating mind. Under the direction of conductor Timothy Long, the singers and instrumentalists of the University of Maryland give a compelling performance of Proto’s imaginative score.

_MG_3024.png

The opera’s intriguing storyline and music should be enough to arouse curiosity in most music and sports lovers, but for those who are still not inspired to swing by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this weekend, Major’s staging of the production should provide further incentive. Major does not simply approach Shadowboxer using a traditional arsenal of production tools. Rather, he considers how the cinematic and visual “literacy” of today’s audience members make them particularly receptive to the use of multimedia technologies in the performing arts, and he incorporates those technologies with a discerning eye. Multimedia designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White join forces with scenic designer Erhard Rom, lighting designer Nancy Schertler, and costume designer David Roberts to create a synthesis between classic production techniques and modern technologies.

Rom’s deconstructed stage design functions as the ideal backdrop for Schertler’s expressive lighting, which is used to convey the variegated landscape of Joe’s mind. At times, Schertler spatters the stage with dispersed beams of light and shadow, which serve as a visual counterpart to Louis’s fractured memory. During other scenes, she envelops the stage in suffocating ashen shades that — combined with grey costumes and a choir of masked faces––project Louis’s isolation and confusion as he sifts through hazy memories and painful emotions. Especially memorable is the scene in which Louis’s wife Marva sings her heart-wrenching aria “I love the man who isn’t there” immediately after handing her husband divorce papers. Schertler captures the mental anguish of both characters by bathing the stage in an eerie red glow. As Marva sings over martial rhythms played by the orchestra, her towering shadow looms above Louis, a devastating reminder of the torment he caused her by his womanizing lifestyle.

The asymmetric shapes and contoured screens of Rom’s stage design also pair well with the digital projections of Malone and Scott White. Avoiding naturalistic backdrops in favor of expressive abstractions, Malone and Scott White create a living world of action onstage. Their projections function as settings, dreamscapes, and reflections of Louis’s mind. Cloudy images of black and white shadows communicate Louis’s mental confusion and muddled memory, whereas projected details of the boxing ring set the scene, without suggesting a concrete reality. Photographs and newspaper headlines from Louis’s fights in the years leading up to World War II are juxtaposed with scenes of the raging war in Europe, thereby indicating how his victories in the ring were perceived as political and ideological triumphs. In this manner, the projections become characters in their own right, commenting upon the action and communicating the far-reaching implications of Louis’s life in the ring.

Such incorporation of modern technologies in opera is likely to make most traditionalists uneasy, but Malone and Scott White leave no doubt as to their artistic integrity. Their incorporation of new media not only enhances the psychological drama onstage, but also helps to make the production contemporary and relevant to a 21st-century audience.

Finally, we turn our attention to those artists who breathe life into the score and libretto of Shadowboxer, the performers themselves. Composed primarily of singers from the Maryland Opera Studio, this cast of performers includes many vocalists who will likely have successful singing careers upon leaving the University of Maryland. This is certainly true of Jarrod Lee, whose portrayal of old Joe Louis is, without a doubt, the highlight of the show. With a rich baritone voice that seems to glide effortlessly through even the most demanding passages, Lee gives a performance that is both musically refined and poignantly acted. His sensitive portrayal of Louis is the crux of the show’s effectiveness as a psychological drama. University of Maryland faculty member Carmen Balthrop also gives a captivating performance and nearly steals the show with her stirring portrayal of Louis’s mother. Also noteworthy are Adrienne Webster (Marva Trotter, Louis’s wife) and VaShawn McIlwain (Jack Blackburn, Louis’s trainer), whose impressive vocal abilities are matched by their talent for dramatization. Less impressive is Duane Moody’s portrayal of young Joe Louis. Moody does not convincingly project the youthful vigor and tenacity of the heavyweight boxer. Furthermore, his performance emphasizes the boxing champion’s vices, but fails to effectively communicate his dignity and humanity.

In spite of this single shortcoming, Shadowboxer is well worth the trip to College Park, and one can only hope that its premiere at the University of Maryland will inspire future performances. In an era when opera must compete with mass consumerism and digital technologies, it is refreshing to see a new work that merges the performing arts with new media, and that explores timeless themes in more contemporary contexts.

Kate Weber-Petrova
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):