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We welcome another review from guest contributor Janet Peachey, who is a composer based here in Washington. Dr. Peachey also teaches music theory and composition at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Shadowboxer, Maryland Opera Studio, Clarice Smith Center (photo by Cory Weaver)
Last weekend the Maryland Opera Studio premiered a new American opera, Shadowboxer, by composer Frank Proto and librettist John Chenault. The work, heard on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, is based on the life of boxing legend Joe Louis, world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949. The opera was the brainchild of Leon Major, director of the Opera Studio, who kicked around the idea for over twenty-five years before finding a composer and librettist to do the work. Proto and Chenault were suggested to him by fellow University of Maryland faculty member, soprano Carmen Balthrop. Proto has written extensively for orchestra and is equally well-versed in both “classical” and jazz styles, and it seemed fitting to include jazz in such a quintessentially American work. Although neither Proto nor Chenault had written an opera before, although they had collaborated together on other projects. Both were drawn to the idea of an opera about Joe Louis, particularly Chenault, a lifelong boxing fan.

The opera depicts the final moments of Louis’s life, when he relives his entire career through a series of flashbacks. He is portrayed by three different actors: as a wheelchair-bound old man on the verge of death who remains on stage throughout the opera, reflecting on the events taking place; as the younger Joe Louis interacting with other characters as his life progresses; and as the fighter in the ring whenever fights are shown (a non-singing role, always in a choreographed fight against the same opponent). Characters surrounding Louis are his wife, his mother, agents and trainers, a trio of newsmen (either nay-sayers or supporters, depending on which way the wind is blowing), a trio of “beauties” who seduce Louis (later on appearing as nurses), and a ring announcer.

Louis’s eventful personal life plays out against the historical backdrops of the Great Depression, Jim Crow era segregation, and World War II. Consequently, Shadowboxer deals with a number of different themes: the racism Louis endured as the first African American sports hero; his patriotism and defense of American democracy and freedom during World War II in spite of being treated as a second-class citizen; his courage, honesty, integrity, and “clean” approach to the sport; his generosity and subsequent financial difficulties, especially with the IRS; his relationships with his mother, Lillie, and his wife, Marva; his weakness for women; the drug addiction and mental illness that plagued him at the end of his life.

A pivotal moment in both Joe Louis’s life and the opera was his first defeat in the ring, at the hands of Max Schmeling of Nazi Germany. Two years later, Louis came back to fight Schmeling again, this time knocking him out in just two minutes and four seconds and regaining the world title. To much of the world, this victory symbolized the triumph of American democracy over German fascism.

According to Chenault, the title Shadowboxer has two implications: first, in Chenault’s words, “the image of Louis confronting his own mortality in an epic struggle with death;” second, as a metaphor for Louis’s position in the history of boxing between his predecessor, Jack Johnson, and his successor, Muhammad Ali, whose career overshadowed Louis’s. This is brought out towards the end of the opera when a solo on-stage saxophone and trumpet portray Johnson and Ali, with their words projected on the screens. However, there are other allusions to the concept of a “shadowboxer” throughout the opera: taunting Louis before their second fight, Max Schmeling calls him a shadowboxer. (Ironically, in real life, but not in the opera, Louis and Schmeling became good friends in later years.) When representing the U.S. during World War II, Louis laments that he is “a symbol, not a man.” When Louis can’t seem to stop his womanizing, his wife Marva complains that he has become a shadow and says “I love the man who isn’t there.”

Other Articles:

Chris Klimek, 'Shadowboxer' an operatic take on an American icon (Washington Examiner, April 21)

Karren Alenier, Shadowboxer: Joe Louis Fights His Ghosts (The Dresser, April 21)

Tim Smith, 'Shadowboxer,' opera about legendary Joe Louis, premieres at Clarice Smith Center (Baltimore Sun, April 20)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Down for the Count: “Shadowboxer” at the University of Maryland (DMV Classical, April 20)

Robert Battey, 'Shadowboxer: Based on the Life of Joe Louis' at Maryland Opera Studio (Washington Post, April 19)

Terry Ponick, An inside look at the Joe Louis opera, Shadowboxer (D.C. Theater Scene, April 18)

Anne Midgette, Inspired by Joe Louis, opera 'Shadowboxer' scores one for reality (Washington Post, April 17)

Ken Sain, An opera that packs a punch (Montgomery County Gazette, April 15)
With so much story line, there is plenty of drama and multiple layers of meaning which both the libretto and the music express effectively. The work is scored for a 44-piece orchestra in the pit and an 8-piece jazz band at the back of the stage; the orchestral and jazz portions blend seamlessly together, creating a lush musical tapestry supporting the singers in their wide ranges of emotional expression. Conductor Timothy Long drew superb performances from the musicians, members of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Studies Program, as well as the fifteen opera soloists and twelve-member chorus. That the voices were always audible above the orchestra is a tribute to both the composer and the conductor. The singers’ clear diction and the supertitles displayed on large monitors at the sides of the theater made it easy to understand the text.

Erhard Rom’s scenic design is simple but powerful. At the back and sides of the stage are three large screens, onto which vintage black-and-white images were projected: boxing scenes, posters, and news headlines, as well as various World War II photographs. Aside from that, the only props are chairs and the masks worn throughout much of the opera by cast and chorus members. The costumes, designed by David Roberts, are period suits and dresses in various shades of gray; the only colored object on the stage is the elderly Joe Louis’s bathrobe.

Outstanding performances were delivered by the entire cast, in particular Jarrod Lee and Duane A. Moody as old and young Joe Louis, respectively, and Adrienne Webster as Louis’s wife, Marva Trotter. Not surprisingly, the most stunning performance was by Carmen Balthrop in the role of Louis’s mother, Lillie Brooks. Leon Major’s brilliant staging communicated the depth inherent in the score and libretto. Shadowboxer is a complex and profound tour de force which is highly deserving of future productions, and the Maryland Opera Studio is to be commended for commissioning it. Anyone interested in contemporary American opera should take advantage of the remaining performances scheduled for April 23 and 25.

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