Sports parallel the arts in many ways, one being that in both realms you can become famous only if you are really good at what you do. Crucially, “Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis,” which had its world premiere on Saturday in the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, fails to show, evoke, or even discuss in any detail the reason Louis had such a turbulent life in the first place: He knocked his opponents out, regularly, brutally, thrillingly.
We are initially presented with an old Joe (Jarrod Lee), in the throes of death from a heart attack, thinking he’s stuck in one last bout with his past. This first scene displayed almost all the considerable virtues of this production: It’s well-sung, mostly by students in the Maryland Opera Studio, with an assist from professor/soprano Carmen Balthrop, who is extremely charismatic even in a really ill-fitting wig, as Louis’ mother. Under conductor Timothy Long, the U-Md. Symphony Orchestra and members of the Maryland Jazz Studies Program sounded alert and vigorous in Frank Proto’s score. And director Leon Major presents his visual ideas for realizing the book and the score without impeding either.
Then Joe’s memories start rushing back to him, in convenient chronological order, and the seams in John Chenault’s libretto and Proto’s score start showing. Our first encounter with Young Joe (Duane A. Moody) comes as he is presented to a reluctant trainer (VaShawn Savoy McIlwain). Though McIlwain expresses convincing skepticism, we know that the opera will be very short if he does not take Joe on as a protégé, and thus the scene enters the critic’s logbook as the first of many clichés employed to keep the drama going. Meanwhile, Proto sets dialogue in the following style:
[ominous orchestral shiver ending on a crescendo]
[singing] I am going to declaim SOMETHING
[sustained quiet tones in strings/winds, or another shiver/crescendo]
[singing] There is SOMETHING I am going to deCLAIM
I’m not claiming my memory is perfect, but my recollection is this is how about 80 percent of the opera sounds.
The next thing you know Louis is knocking people out. It’s actually fun to watch Old Joe, in wheelchair, bathrobe and PJs, watching Young Joe, who in turn is watching Boxing Joe, aka Nickolas Vaughn, whose training for the role shows up in his footwork and handskills. Yet despite Vaughn’s balletic efforts, nobody but Joe Louis could really evoke Joe Louis as a fighter. So how do we feel his impact?
Here we could use the chorus to fill us in on what it felt like to watch Louis send people sprawling to the canvas. We could get an aria from a felled foe about what Joe’s right-left combo felt like just before he saw bright lights and faded to black. We could even get inside Joe’s mind as he puts away another palooka — what drew him to this punishing career? We get none of these. Joe’s dominance — what makes his personal life happen, and what makes it interesting — never gets much of a description, until a eulogic aria closes the show calling Joe the greatest heavyweight champion ever. Well, why?
Instead, epochal events, like Louis making his name by dispatching Max Baer or providing yet more evidence against Hitler’s master-race theories by pounding Max Schmeling irreversibly into the canvas in 124 seconds, pass with rushed fanfare. His courtship of Marva Trotter (Adrienne Webster) happens in the space of an aria, albeit one Webster sang with involving passion. After intermission, Louis joins the Navy, then the taxman comes again, then some more fighting, then Marva leaves him…
So much incident, and we never really get a feel for the reason America lionized this man. And trying to pack in everything in Louis’ life (including the racism against a black man dominating white men in his sport) leaves all the incidents wanting more space to bloom. Chenault’s weakness for verbal clichés doesn’t help, as when life passes “at the speed of light, in the blink of an eye,” in Joe’s late-life ruminations. Somehow, I found myself bored for much of the opera.
Jazz inflections liven up the texture, but Proto mostly features the jazz band in order to conjure a seductive, dangerous lifestyle into which Louis is drawn. Elsewhere, his angular lyricism provides some occasional beauties — both of the arias Marva delivers make for good drama — but mostly meanders from moment to moment. Though it may well be there, I certainly didn’t hear anything structural in the score helping to lead me through the drama, to understand how one part of Louis’ life rhymed with or departed from another. Proto also seems reluctant to set Chenault’s occasional metrical couplets as actual metrical couplets, which makes them sound accidental and thus really stupid. All this makes “Shadowboxer” sound more like a play whose words are set to music than a dramma per musica.
I want to like English-language operas (and I could hear every word, thank you) with jazz inflections that deal with topics not normally considered within opera’s orbit, and “Shadowboxer” is all those things. But squared-circle historian (and Maryland alum) Bert Randolph Sugar‘s note in the program does a better job telling people why we should care about Joe Louis than “Shadowboxer” does, and when you leave your middle that wide open, more often than not you’re going to hit the canvas.
It’s probably a fair criticism of this review that I spent a good deal of the time talking about what I wanted the opera to be rather than what the opera was. The first job of the reviewer is to give an idea of what the music and performance sounded like. But I found the opera so unsatisfying that, after the notes about the admirable performances, a simple catalogue of what happened would have just been me complaining for 800 words. This seemed like a better idea — to investigate why along with how the opera failed.
Also, yes, I’m not a drama critic (although I used to review movies at Maryland). But since the music itself wasn’t creating the drama, you have to look at something.
Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey (a more normal review).