Little is more exciting than the chance to hear a new opera. There before you is an unknown libretto, characters and plot unfolding, and unheard music flowing into your ears for the first time without anyone’s impressions or experience of the work to bias your own. So kudos to the Washington National Opera for putting its money where its mouth is by supporting the American Opera Initiative, which aims to foster composers and librettists in the composition of new operas. The program closed its first season with the presentation of “Approaching Ali,” a new opera by D.J. Sparr heard Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
The opera tells the story of a writer’s encounter with his boyhood hero, the boxer Muhammad Ali, drawn from the autobiographical story and novel “The Tao of Muhammad Ali” by Davis Miller, who co-wrote the libretto with experienced librettist Mark Campbell. The character of the adult Miller, sung with force and passion by baritone David Kravitz, knocks on the door of Ali’s mother’s house, hoping to get an autograph and show his idol a story he has written about him, and is invited in for dinner. As Ali’s mother, Odessa, reminisces about her son’s childhood, Miller is flooded with memories of himself as a troubled boy, incarnated with beautifully fragile grace by the young singer Ethan McKelvain, who carried considerable dramatic and vocal weight (nice high A!) on his shoulders.
Part of what makes the American Opera Initiative work, with its extensive workshop process for each opera, is that the company can feature the singers in its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, which is undergoing a long-needed revitalization. At the center of the opera was a juicy role for the accomplished young bass Soloman Howard, a Washington native who gave powerful voice to Muhammad Ali with equal parts humor and proud bluster. Some of the best vocal writing, however, fell to Domingo-Cafritz alumna Aundi Marie Moore (she stood out memorably in the supporting cast of the 2008 “Elektra”), who had a coffee-rich tone as Odessa, full of maternal savvy and bluesy vernacular touches.
Sparr was truly lucky to have such committed musicians make the best of what was in many ways a thin and disappointing score, for in less talented hands, it might have come off as pedestrian. Much of the vocal writing was flat and uninteresting, using a lot of monotone recitation, although whenever Odessa entered, with her blue-note-inflected humming, there was relief. Little stood out in terms of harmonic invention or orchestration, either, making for a static sameness that reigned through much of the opera. Part of the problem was Sparr’s excessive reliance on percussion to the detriment of his woodwinds and strings. Especially pervasive were the crotales and vibraphone, whose players were hopefully paid double-time. Conductor Steven Jarvi, himself a Domingo-Cafritz alum, held things together at the podium.
Nicole Watson directed a pleasing production, with the interior of Odessa’s home suggested behind a scrim that rose when Miller entered the house (Paul Taylor designed the sets). At one point, a flown-in screen served ingeniously for the shadow-boxing of the young Ali, the inspiration to the scrawny young Davis to end the bullying he was suffering at school (Martha Mountain designed the lighting). Transitions between the present and the past were seamless, making for nostalgic turns in the supporting cast by Miller’s father and mother, tenor Tim Augustin and mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin. Some overly sentimental writing, as in the duet weaving together the fears of both mothers for their children, was leavened nicely by humor in other places.
Downey is a freelance writer.