New operas don't often score knock-outs. But, if crowd response were the determining factor, "Approaching Ali" sure sounded like a champion Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, where Washington National Opera presented the premiere of this hour-long piece.

The applause was loud and long, a heartening reaction to witness for any freshly written opera. And there certainly was a lot to cheer in this modest-dimensioned, entertaining work.


"Approaching Ali," based on Davis Miller's autobiographical book "The Tao of Muhammad Ali," features an imaginative score by Baltimore School for the Arts alum D.J. Sparr. His harmonic style is nicely spicy, but fundamentally tonal, and he reveals a good sense of propulsion; like Ali in his prime, the score is nimble on its feet.

Not everything works (I'm not sure the word "champ" would ever really need four or five syllables, for example), and not every scene clicks tightly. The ending, in particular, lacks weight.

But Sparr knows how to send a vocal line soaring vividly, and how to extract a great deal of color from a 10-member orchestra (Asian percussion effects play a major and atmospheric, if occasionally heavy-handed, role).

Although the text by Miller and accomplished librettist Mark Campbell doesn't entirely satisfy -- a little less "approaching" and a lot more Ali would be welcome -- it manages to set out a tidy little inspirational story about how the celebrated boxer unknowingly influenced the life of a timid, bullied boy who grew up to be a writer.

There are cliches and some awkward passages along the way, when words and music try a little too hard for a grand statement. Still, given the parameters of this commission from WNO's American Opera Initiative (including length), the new piece succeeds at presenting characters with sufficient depth, situations with sufficient substance and meaning.

The opera even has something that you might not expect -- charm. That's no small achievement. It's especially strong in the case of Ali, who, in the opening scene set in 1989, is in a physically well-worn, yet still delightfully spirited, state. And there's something endearing about scenes with Young Davis trying to deal with his mother's death, slowly gaining strength and focus from watching Ali's fights on TV.

"Approaching Ali" got an excellent launch Saturday night. WNO's first-rate cast, directed sensitively by Nicole Watson, moved deftly through Paul Taylor's understated, evocative set.

Soloman Howard was terrific as Ali. The bass poured out a golden tone and shaped lines with telling expressive nuance. He proved to be a most persuasive actor as well, neatly conjuring up Ali's physical presence, down to the trembling hand.

David Kravitz's warm, supple baritone and vibrant personality fleshed out Miller's character. Boy soprano Ethan McKelvain rose to the challenges as Young Davis, singing sweetly and getting fully into the spirit in a clever shadow-boxing scene. Richly communicative singing came from Tim Augustin and Catherine Martin as the child's parents.

Aundi Marie Moore nearly walked off with the opera in the supporting role of Ali's mother, Odessa. Her radiant soprano lit up the Terrace Theater even when she was just softly humming; her portrayal was remarkably detailed and touching. Sparr stepped into cliche territory when putting an obvious jazz/gospel spin on Odessa's vocal lines, but Moore made them sound perfectly natural. A stirring performance.

Steven Jarvi conducted with a sure hand and drew polished work from the orchestra.

All in all, "Approaching Ali" makes a worthy calling card for the American Opera Initiative. It also demonstrates Sparr's considerable potential; his first attempt in this tricky genre lands some very solid punches.