By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
June 1, 2013
In his typical rhyming style, Muhammad Ali might call it something like "a whopper of an opera."
The legendary boxer, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, has inspired "Approaching Ali," a chamber opera with music by Carroll County native and Baltimore School for the Arts alum D.J. Sparr. The work is based on Davis Miller's 1996 book "The Tao of Muhammad Ali."
Contemporary political figures have ended up in operas, "Nixon in China" by John Adams being the most prominent example. There is at least one opera about the Kennedys, at least two operas about Marilyn Monroe, and another about the slightly less significant, but certainly famous, Anna Nicole Smith.
"Setting Ali as an operatic character made sense," Sparr said. "He's sort of mythological, bigger than real life. He seems more than a single human being."
Washington National Opera gives the world premiere of the hourlong "Approaching Ali" next weekend at the Kennedy Center. It was developed as part of its American Opera Initiative, a project to commission new works by young, emerging American composers writing about American themes.
When Sparr saw a news release about the launch of the initiative a year ago, he was intrigued and sent off an email to the opera company.
"All of a sudden, a week later I was on the phone with them," Sparr, 37, said.
With Ali as the topic for an opera, it's no wonder he got the company's interest. He was quickly accepted into the program. Sparr entered with solid credits behind him. Raised in Westminster, he started taking guitar lessons in elementary school. He was soon writing his own songs.
"Then my mom heard about this thing called the Baltimore School for the Arts," he said. "I auditioned and got in. I studied jazz guitar."
A teacher introduced Sparr to classical music ("I got a cassette tape of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Beethoven's Third Symphony, and I really liked that"), and the idea of becoming a composer soon took hold. His first piece was written for the Carroll County Children's Choir.
Sparr took part in a summer program for high school composers at the Boston Symphony's high-profile Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires and earned degrees from the Eastman School of Music and University of Michigan.
Currently based in Richmond, Va., Sparr has had works premiered by the Richmond Symphony and the eclectic chamber group eighth blackbird, among others, and has earned several awards along the way.
In 2011, he was named Young American Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony Orchestra, a post previously held by such talents as Kevin Puts, the Peabody Conservatory teacher who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his first opera, "Silent Night."
"Approaching Ali" marks Sparr's first foray into opera. The idea for it came about fortuitously. In the summer of 2011, Sparr and his wife, Kimberly, a former faculty member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who is assistant principal violist in the Richmond Symphony, sublet their Virginia house to a writer — Davis Miller.
In chats about music with Sparr, Miller mentioned pieces for narrator and orchestra he liked that celebrated great men: Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait" and Joseph Schwantner's "New Morning for the World," a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Davis said, 'I think there could be a piece about Ali,' " Sparr said. "So I read his book, and we started talking about an opera."
"The Tao of Muhammad Ali" details Miller's longtime admiration for the former Cassius Clay and the friendship that the author developed with his childhood hero.
By last autumn, Miller had drafted a libretto. He was joined in the final writing process by a mentor for the American Opera Initiative, Mark Campbell, today's go-to opera librettist for several composers — Campbell was Puts' collaborator on "Silent Night."
"I'm really excited about the finished product," said Michael Heaston, director of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. "D.J., Davis and Mark have managed to tell an autobiographical story with a lot of dramatic interest in the time frame of just one hour."
"Approaching Ali," which calls for an orchestra of 10, moves back and forth in time between 1964 and 1984 as it reveals how Miller's youth was made difficult by the death of his mother and being bullied in school.
The young Miller drew inspiration from seeing the supremely self-confident Ali on TV and started learning to defend himself. (The real Miller became an accomplished kick boxer and shared the ring briefly with Ali in an exhibition bout before focusing on a writing career.)
The two men met and developed a friendship, which the opera depicts in scenes that take place in the Louisville, Ky., home of Ali's mother. "Champ, you changed my life," Miller sings to Ali. "When I was a kid, you made me believe I could do anything."
Miller is a dual character in the piece, portrayed as a child by a boy soprano, by a baritone as an adult. Miller's parents and Ali's mother are also characters. And, of course, there's the "The Champ" himself.
" 'Mr. Champ,' as we call him," said Soloman Howard, the bass who will sing the role of Ali in the premiere. "It's an honor to portray someone you idolized growing up. But my first reaction when they asked me was: 'What? Ali? Me?' "
The D.C.-born Howard, 32, a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, recently sang the role of Joe in several performances of the company's brilliant production of "Show Boat" last month.
He settled on a vocal career while studying at Morgan State University, where he sang in the school's celebrated choir, and earned a graduate degree at the Manhattan School of Music. But Howard brings more than the vocal chops to the role of Ali.
"I have an athletic background," the singer said. "I played football and did some sparring with my uncle in Baltimore. He would show me things from time to time, ways to take care of myself, 'just in case,' he would say."
Still, stepping into the operatic ring in the guise of one of the 20th century's most iconic men has to be a little intimidating, especially since Ali's own speaking voice is so well known.
"It's extraordinarily challenging," Howard said. "I was kind of shocked that the part calls for a bass. Ali has more of a tenor voice. But it was very musical to me. There was kind of, sort of a rhythm in which he spoke, with elongated phrases. Making him an operatic figure just made sense to me."
In addition to going against expectations when it came to the vocal range for the title character, Sparr avoided writing the opera in an all-out American style. He took inspiration from Eastern cultures, especially gongs and dharma drums.
"Davis told me it felt the air was electrified when Ali walked into a room," the composer said. "I wanted to create a shimmering sheen in the orchestra."
(The air would certainly become electrified if the 71-year-old Ali were to attend the premiere. That does not seem likely, but he and his family have been informed about the new opera.)
For Howard, the chance to be Ali, if only for an hour, is exhilarating.
"I feel I'm drawing something from him," Howard said. "He didn't always believe he was the greatest, but he would tell himself that. In later years, he had to psych himself out. I can relate to that. I often tell myself things for encouragement. The amount of charisma, charm and character he possesses is just amazing. To me, he's the friendly giant."
If you go
"Approaching Ali" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. June 2 at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre. Tickets are $30. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.
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