‘The Greatest’ Song

To portray boxing champ Muhammad Ali, opera singer Soloman Howard turns to life experience

June 6, 2013
Soloman Howard plays Muhammad Ali in the opera “Approaching Ali,” at the Kennedy Center.
Soloman Howard plays Muhammad Ali in the opera “Approaching Ali,” at the Kennedy Center.

Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. Sing like a bird?

Well, a very deep-voiced bird.

In the new opera “Approaching Ali,” boxing legend Muhammad Ali appears as an aging basso, played by Soloman Howard, a product of the Washington National Opera’s Young Artist Program.

The opera was commissioned by the American Opera Initiative, which wants to make (surprise!) American operas and debunk the perception of the medium as being full of five-hour German-language epics about the end of the world. “Approaching Ali” is an hour long, in English, and about an American icon. Not a horned helmet in sight.

Though the opera’s main character is Davis Miller (author of the memoir the opera is based on, played by David Kravitz), the most compelling character is Ali, who is seen both in his semi-dotage and in his younger champ days.

Howard’s robust voice contributes to a perfect depiction of the aging-but-still-intimidating legend. He also has the boxer’s restless physicality down. During rehearsals, he hops around sparring — something his voice teacher has him do when she wants to test his breath control.

Howard, 32, has been honing his singing since elementary school, after he and his family moved to Fairfax from a rough part of Southeast D.C.

“I really had to be determined; I had to take the Ali approach,” he says. “I had to say, ‘This is what I want to do, and I’m gonna be the greatest at it.’ ”

Howard estimates that he’s one of two people from his group of childhood friends to go to college. “And I majored in classical voice,” he says of his time at Morgan State University. “Everyone said, ‘Get a real job, become a doctor or a lawyer.’ But music is real.”

From there, he found the WNO’s Young Artist Program. His first application didn’t go so well: The deadline had already passed. Months later, he auditioned for the chorus instead.

“The artistic director was like, ‘Where the hell have YOU been?’ ” he says. Soon, he was singing for opera legend Placido Domingo, who was then the company’s general director. Domingo created a new spot in the program for him.

Actors always try to find something in themselves to connect to their characters. For Howard, Muhammad Ali has long been an inspiration.

“People doubted him, tried to tear him down, tried not to allow him to live to his fullest potential,” he says. “But Ali had determination no matter what mountains were in front of him.”

Backstory: “Approaching Ali” is based on co-librettist Davis Miller’s 1997 book “The Tao of Muhammad Ali.” It’s an entirely new work by D.J. Sparr, Mark Campbell and Miller, and is the culmination of the American Opera Initiative season. (Earlier this year, three new 20-minute operas were produced.) This hour-long show is the Initiative’s most ambitious project of the year.

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Sat. and Sun., $30; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)
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Fiona Zublin | June 6, 2013