'Shadowboxer: Based on the Life of Joe Louis' at Maryland Opera Studio

By Robert Battey
Monday, April 19, 2010

Boxing legend Joe Louis lived a long, tumultuous life, with any number of epic events, professional or personal, along the way. The life of the first black superstar athlete embraced and lionized by all of America was a never-ending series of confrontations with opponents, managers, racists, opportunists, the IRS, ex-wives and eventually drugs. In any given year, he likely experienced five or six operas' worth of cliffhangers.

Thus, the principal disappointment of "Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis," lavishly mounted by the Maryland Opera Studio, is that the creators chose the shopworn biopic approach (the dying protagonist experiences flashbacks of his entire life) rather than focusing on and personalizing one or two dramatic events. It is always an uphill climb for operas and plays based on historical events to create any real suspense (John Adams's recent "Dr. Atomic," about the first A-bomb test at Los Alamos, should have served as a cautionary lesson to everyone).

"Shadowboxer" simply sails through Louis's career, stopping here and there, and moving on. His colorful life is made gray by the need to hit all the general themes -- racism, womanizing, tax problems, etc. -- while keeping moving. Librettist John Chenault and composer Frank Proto have apparently collaborated on several multi-media works before, but this is the first opera for either one, and it shows. What they gave us, essentially, was "Joe Louis; This Is Your Life!" set to music.

It takes us a moment to figure out that three different cast members are portraying Louis, and it's not always clear why one or another is used in a particular scene. Chenault has his semi-literate protagonist delivering words like "cloying" and lines like "in the squared circle of hell." But many of the putatively operatic moments fall flat, such as Louis's big "I am a man!" monologue against racists and his mother's maudlin "They're going to kill him!" outburst during his first loss to Max Schmeling. The emotions here are not only cliches, they do nothing to advance the story.

Proto's vocal writing is effective in the choruses, ranging from the bouncy "Give us a buck," to the eerie humming, to the crisp, cinematic Act I finale. But the solo writing is mostly in the tedious note-for-syllable arioso style that drags down so many modern operas. In the few spots where the characters actually make music, such as Marva Louis's "I love the man who isn't there" lament, the show comes alive.

This world premiere, which opened last Saturday night at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center and runs through this Sunday, does demonstrate the high level of professionalism of which the school is capable. Set design and staging (Erhard Rom and Leon Major) effectively blended live action with projections and sound effects, and guest conductor Timothy Long drew a good performance out of the student orchestra.

The cast had some questionable voices, but was mostly strong and moved well (I liked the three sportswriters, a clear echo of Puccini's Ping, Pang, and Pong). University of Maryland voice professor Carmen Balthrop, the one ringer, appearing as Louis's mother, made manifest the difference between talented grad student and accomplished pro.

While "Shadowboxer's" future after this premiere is an open question, it is a testament to opera's multi-level vitality as an art form that the resources are still there to bring new works like this to such impressive fruition.

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