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Duane Moody (Young Joe), Madeline Miskie (Beauty #1), Amanda Opuszynski (Beauty #3) and Amelia Davis (Beauty #2) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]
24 Apr 2010

Shadowboxer’s Left Jab

This month, the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) at the University of Maryland, College Park, marked its spot in opera history with the world premiere of Shadowboxer, a jazz-infused opera based on the life of iconic American boxer 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: Duane Moody (Young Joe), Madeline Miskie (Beauty #1), Amanda Opuszynski (Beauty #3) and Amelia Davis (Beauty #2) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]


With music by Frank Proto and libretto by John Chenault, Shadowboxer culminated a twenty-five year old dream of MOS director Leon Major to bring Louis’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story to the opera house.

Longtime collaborators Proto and Chenault have written a challenging, provocative, and somewhat problematic work. It was skillfully produced, despite some writing flaws: Major and his MOS forces pulled out all the stops, with many saving effects that supported the sagging score. Chenault devised his libretto as a series of flashbacks the older Louis has after a heart attack. The main confusion arose with having three Joes onstage, often simultaneously. Older Louis watched as Young Joe (played by tenor Duane Moody) re-enacted his various flashbacks. Young Joe stood alongside older Joe during many scenes, mirroring his actions or even relating to him, and would blend in and out of the crowd. Two actors, playing Joe the Boxer (Nickolas Vaughn) and Joe’s Opponents (Craig Lawrence), mimed several of the famous boxing matches. The boxing actors brought to the stage the needed raw energy and passion raised during a fight. One wished for a single person to play Young Joe, who could also act the boxing scenes, or even one singer-actor throughout the show, rather than three. Luckily, Major imaginatively guided the interaction of the three Joes, so the confusion was less apparent.

Unfortunately, Chenault‘s solo lines for older Louis, which are certainly intended to be introspective, came across as rambling, and told rather than revealed the character’s thoughts. Proto’s angular musical lines did not aid these solo sections, but rather showed an accomplished instrumental composer struggling to set philosophical words. The result had too many moments of the older Louis singing challenging intervals, rather than well-crafted vocal lines setting a succinct script. Fortunately, Jarrod Lee (playing Old Joe) made music and drama out of the disjointed lines. What a relief near the end of Act II to hear Lee sing a real tune about life being beautiful!

Proto’s highly complex music includes a full pit orchestra, a 15-member singing cast and a choral ensemble, as well as the unique feature of an onstage jazz band. The jazz band adds the sound element of the era, not so much as period music, but as its musical descendant. Timothy Long expertly conducted the difficult score, and seemed quite at home directing the club-influenced method of throwing the tune back and forth between the band and the orchestra. Both ensembles played sensitively, and seemed at ease with the harmonic and rhythmic language of the score. When the full company was in action--reliving the fights or relating to each other--the entire production gleamed with energy.


Often wearing faceless, half-skull masks, the choral ensemble acted as a Greek chorus, singing Proto’s Swingle-Singer-influenced harmonies with confidence, and often, chilling beauty. They gave voice to Louis’s memories of the moment. Each singer sat or stood near a black chair, symbolically lifting it up, turning it on its side, or switching it to another angle to move in or out of the action. Some of the best music, and the most notable performances, came from three sets of trios surrounding Louis. (Need we mention the recurring jazz trio, or even trinity, theme pervading the script?) VaShawn Savoy McIlwain gave a strong, earthy, no-nonsense performance as trainer Jack Blackburn. Along with McIlwain, Robert King (Julian Black) and Benjamin Moore (John Roxborough) rounded out this strong trio of men guiding Louis’s career. The Three Reporters, representing the press (Andrew Owens, Andrew McLaughlin, and Colin Michael Brush), offered solid vocal harmonies and acted with appropriate slime as they either kept their racism in check or pounced on Louis when he lost. The Three Beauties, depicting the wide variety of Louis’s female companions and sung by Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis, and Amanda Opuszynski, melted over both young and old Joe. Their supple voices blended well, often using a straight vocal tone more akin to musical theatre or jazz.

Strong lead performances were given by professor Carmen Balthrop, who portrayed Louis’s mother, Lillie Brooks, with inner dignity, and deep, maternal emotion; Adrienne Webster (Louis’s wife Marva Trotter), who gave herself completely to the role with powerful, emotional singing; and Peter Burroughs, who generated the necessary bravado for German boxer Max Schmeling. Jarrod Lee gave an outstanding performance as he embodied the aged and broken Louis. He sang nearly ninety-five percent of the opera wheeling around in a wheel chair. The logistics and energy of continuing that for two hours was a feat unto itself. Exhibiting excellent musicianship, he sang the difficult, angular vocal lines with a commanding, emotional baritone throughout the opera. Lee is certainly a singer to watch in the future.

Set designer Erhard Rom brought ringside flavor to his stage with an open floor, the moveable black chairs, and three angular screens suspended from the ceiling, hugging the up, left and right stage perimeter. Lighting, hung from crisscrossed girders, added to the angularity of the stage, the screens, and the musical lines. Spotlights were often boxing-ring square, rather than the customary round spots. Projection designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White chose images, such as boxing ring corners, old radios, and fight scenes, to enhance the subtext of the libretto. A memorable effect occurs in Act I: as the older Louis reminisces about various boxers, each boxer’s individual picture appears to fade in and out of a swirling fog on the left or right screens. Kirby and Malone added a moving-picture element several times when a photo would appear on each screen in sequence, as if it were a film. Often the cast sang against the actual film footage of scenes from World War II and boxing matches. This did not distract, but rather enhanced the words and mood with more of a background visual effect. Fight sound clips were also interspersed periodically. Near the end of Act II, Louis hears the voices of boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali speak to him through an onstage solo sax and trumpet. Their words flash on the screen as the instrumental voices “talk.” A tighter conversational script for Joe would have given the audience a better chance to imagine the other boxers’ words. As it was, the instrumentalists appearing onstage weakened the dramatic effect.

The life of boxer Joe Louis inspires sober reflection upon the realities of living in a racist society, then and now. Chenault featured this topic prominently, and appropriately, throughout the opera. Proto, Chenault and the entire MOS team have certainly fulfilled Major’s dream to show the life of “a man who boxed for a living.” They have launched another complex hero for the opera world to celebrate, and to contemplate.

Deborah Thurlow
University of Maryland

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