Inspired by Joe Louis, opera ‘Shadowboxer' scores one for reality

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

When stage director Leon Major was a little boy, his father was eager to listen to the boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Louis was the defending heavyweight champion, Schmeling was a representative of Hitler's Germany who had beaten Louis two years before, and their rematch in June 1938 was one of the most anticipated fights of all time, for its political as well as for its athletic significance. "My father, who was a tailor in the shtetl, wanted to hear that Joe Louis fight," Major says. "I don't think they have boxing in the shtetl." When the fight started, "my father went into the kitchen to get a glass of tea," Major says. "And when he came back, the fight was over." Louis knocked out Schmeling in 2 minutes 4 seconds.

Major is now the artistic director of the Maryland Opera Studio. For 25 years, he has been thinking about an opera based on the life of Joe Louis: good vs. evil in the age of the Nazis, black vs. white in the age of Jim Crow and, finally, a fallen hero when Rocky Marciano knocked him out in 1951 and then apologized to him backstage: "I had to do it, Joe." That opera, finally, has come to pass. On Saturday night, "Shadowboxer," by Frank Proto and John Chenault, with Major directing, is opening at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the University of Maryland campus in College Park.

There haven't been a lot of operas about boxing, and yet there are certain parallels between the two sports, or arts. "It's the same crowd and the same lights," pointed out Jack Johnson, the first black holder of the heavyweight title, after making his opera debut in 1936 in the nonspeaking role of a captive Ethiopian general in Verdi's "Aida."

There's also the same athletic element: Opera, too, is a physical feat, the result of long years of training brought to bear on a few key minutes at center stage while the expectant crowd roars for blood. The one-on-one drama of single combat in boxing certainly has a theatrical aspect. Major has been working on developing the parallel; his cast worked out with the university's Terps Boxing Club.

What does the music of boxing sound like? Carmen Balthrop, a soprano and voice teacher at the university (and the only faculty member in the "Shadowboxer" cast) introduced Major to Proto, a double-bass player and composer who is equally at home in the worlds of classical music and jazz.

"Jazz has always been part of my life," says Proto, who played with the Cincinnati Symphony for more than 30 years but has also written for and performed with the likes of Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck, and who speaks with some of the colorful quaintness of an athlete -- or an old-time jazz star. Self-taught as a composer, Proto -- who has done six previous works with Chenault, a professor of African American studies -- doesn't restrict himself to specific genres. He thought jazz should be a part of "Shadowboxer," too, and he's put an eight-member jazz band onstage, along with a more conventional orchestra in the pit.

"The kids, they don't know it's hard," Proto says of the student orchestra. "They just do it." He spoke of working with one classically trained percussionist who was starting to feel the groove: "As we go along," he said, "he's getting nervier and nervier." At one point, the lead alto sax has to play along with an aria for the character Margaret. "He's like 19 years old," says the 68-year-old Proto. "He's like my grandchild. There's this aria that's very sexy, and I'm like, 'Get more sexy,' and he's like, 'Who is this dirty old man?' "

Another parallel between opera and boxing is the speed of the actual event. New opera productions only have a few performances -- "Shadowboxer" runs through April 25 -- and seldom get a second hearing, though one always hopes. Major is familiar with the process; "Shadowboxer" is his third commission for the Maryland Opera Studio, after "Clara" and "Later the Same Evening." Neither has been heard again.

"It's really very strange," he says. "It's unreal. Here we are we've been thinking about it for 15 or 20 years, and rehearsing it for what seems like forever. Now it's about to open, and in a week and a half it will be gone."


will have five performances at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, Saturday through April 25. Performances on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and April 25 will be preceded by a free interactive talk called "The Music of 'Shadowboxer.' " Show tickets are $32 ($9 for students). For information, call 301-405-2787 or go to

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