World premiere: Washington National Opera's 'Approaching Ali'

New D. J. Sparr opera explores hidden side of controversial heavyweight champ. Photo: Davis Miller

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2013 – The Washington National Opera (WNO) presented the world premiere performances of D. J. Sparr’s one-act opera, “Approaching Ali” this past Saturday and Sunday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. This was the second production of WNO’s still-fledgling new American Opera Initiative, the company’s new commissioning program geared toward getting the most promising American opera composers’ works on stage and in front of the public. 

Earlier this year, WNO’s first AOI initiative, a trio of semi-staged mini-operas, was, for this reviewer at least, a surprising and delightful success. We’re happy to say that WNO’s latest offering once again proved substantially more rewarding than one might have expected. 

Barely an hour in duration, “Approaching Ali,” sung in very easy to understand English, is based on an unusual book by author Davis Miller, “The Tao of Muhammed Ali.” WNO background material describes the book as an “autobiographical novella,” but the story very closely tracks the author’s own personal experiences in visceral detail. 

In short, a lonely, motherless, introverted, bullied child, Davis Miller was sliding down the slippery slope of despair in his youth when he chanced to discover the bigger-than-life personality of controversial heavyweight boxing champ Cassius Clay—eventually known to the world as Muhammed Ali—while at home watching TV in the 1960s. Inspired by the champ’s cockeyed optimism, Miller turned his life around, achieving success both as a writer and as an individual. This eventually led to his meeting Ali years later, an encounter with surprising and unexpected results. 

On the surface, all this may seem a bit too precious, personal and intimate as the subject matter of an opera. But Miller’s well-respected book—reduced to a simple yet surprisingly deep libretto by everyone’s favorite American librettist, the skillful Mark Campbell and set to music by D. J. Sparr, a composer we had previously not encountered—has been transformed into a compact, intensely emotional work of musical theater that explores the tragedies and triumphs of the human inscape in unexpected and at times powerful ways. 

Author Davis Miller sparring with Muhammed Ali. (Photo from Mr. Miller’s collection.)

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To keep production costs reasonable, WNO’s American Opera program has, at least for now, been focusing on new operas of shorter duration that require only a few musicians or a chamber-size orchestra to perform. In this case, the reduced WNO orchestra included a substantial number of percussion instruments, some quite unusual or unique to this opera, all of which were meant, for the most part, to conjure up an East Asian, Zen-like, chant-style atmosphere in keeping with the cerebral, almost mystical approach the opera takes to tell Miller’s very personal and painful story. 

WNO’s cast for the opera included baritone David Kravitz as the adult Davis Miller; DC area boy soprano Ethan McKelvain as young Miller; Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Soloman Howard as Muhammed Ali; former D-C Young Artist Aundi Marie Moore as the champ’s mother, Odessa Clay; and Roy Miller and Catherine Martin in smaller but crucial roles as Davis Miller’s parents, Roy and Sara. All performed their roles admirably and believably. 

Mr. Soloman, as Ali, was particularly impressive. Tall and athletic, he actually looked the part. More importantly, his voice, even early in his career, is huge, impressive and dominating. Better yet, his instrument is also clean, unaffected, and well supported. He reminds us in some ways of a younger Eric Owens whom we had an opportunity to first hear years ago with the Wolf Trap Opera Company, well in advance of his current career as one of the Metropolitan Opera’s shining lights. Mr. Soloman could be on the same trajectory. 

Conducted by another Domingo-Cafritz alum, Steven Jarvi, the small chamber orchestra in this production played accurately and well, considerably enhancing the action and the singing on stage as well as providing an extra layer of psychological significance to each scene.

Stage direction by Nicole Watson, making her WNO debut in this production, was thoughtful and discreet, allowing each character to develop at his or her own pace and making sure the singers were well-positioned to be heard by the audience. And this production’s minimalist set was creative and efficient, suggesting scenes rather than reproducing them, allowing the audience to focus more on the music and the characters as they evolved and grew. 

If WNO can maintain the quality in this series that they’ve displayed so far, and if Saturday’s full house is a future predictor, the company’s American Opera Initiative could well become one of its more popular components in coming seasons. We’ll keep an eye peeled for future productions, which will be announced a bit later this year.

Rating: *** (Three stars out of four.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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