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Thread: Approaching Ali at NC Opera

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Approaching Ali at NC Opera

    Approaching Ali, chamber opera in one act, sung in English, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (2013)
    Music by D. J. Sparr
    Libretto by Mark Campbell and Davis Miller, after the novel The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller

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    NC Opera production, at the Carolina Theater in Durham on 1/29/15.
    This opera will be shown again on 1/31/15 at 7 PM at Enloe Magnet High School Auditorium in Raleigh - visit for tickets

    A chamber ensemble from the NC Opera Orchestra conducted by Samuel McCoy
    Stage director David Carl Toulson
    Lighting Designer Stevan Dupor
    Costumes Denise Schumaker


    Principal roles
    Muhammad Ali - Soloman Howard
    Davis Miller (adult) - Ted Federle
    Odessa Clay - Maria Clark

    Roy Miller - Timothy Sparks
    Sara Miller - Jennifer Seiger
    Davis Miller (child) - Evan Tylka


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    Approaching Ali at NC Opera, curtain calls; photo Opera Lively

    NC Opera again serves contemporary fare to its public, this time in the beautiful setting of the Carolina Theater in Durham, which caught a very good public - not only the house was full, but had patrons of all ages including several children.

    This piece was commissioned by Washington National Opera as part of Francesca Zambello's American Opera Initiative. It has a run time of approximately 60 minutes, and is orchestrated for a small ensemble, made of two violins, a viola, a cello, a bass, a flute, a clarinet, keyboard, and percussion (two players).

    It depicts the real life story of sports writer and author Davis Miller's encounter with Muhammad Ali, in two points of his life: as a young buy watching boxing matches on TV on the occasion of his mother's passing in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1964, and as an adult, in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1989, when he visited the retired boxer in his home, with a stack of magazines to be autographed, and was able to recall how the athlete inspired him to grow strong.

    These scenes are depicted simultaneously on stage. On the left, a simple black rectangular box doubles as a bench where the young Davis sits on his mother's lap, and her coffin. On the right, a living room in Ali's home with a couch and a dining table. In the middle of stage, the background has a screen on which projections of street scenes in Winston-Salem and Louisville are shown, as well as footage of the real Ali.

    While the adult Davis interacts with Ali on the right, he looks at the grieving scenes developing on the left, recalling those pungent moments. Ali's mother comes in and out, sings, serves food.

    This simple set-up carries a surprisingly high dose of emotional punch, in its sensitive rendering of two slices of life. The simultaneous presentation of two points in the life of Mr. Miller is a clever device. I believe the biggest strength of this piece is its libretto, which is charming and entertaining with a good dose of humor, but also tragic and touching. It functions well a stage play.

    The vocal writing is predominantly tonal with arioso-stylo dialogues coupled with melodious singing from the character Odessa Clay. The pit has crashing percussion sounds in the boxing scenes evoking gongs, and longing flute runs with melancholic strings for the saddest parts. I confess that I was underwhelmed by the rather thin and unremarkable instrumental score (the vocal parts are a bit better although the ariosi are unimaginative). It does sound a bit unbalanced as well with predominance of percussion.

    Singing by Soloman Howard who created the title role in Washington DC was impressive, and the artist being a very muscular young man, he looked convincing as the younger boxer. His acting was good enough to not look out of place when he was inhabiting the old retired boxer (no make-up effects were used to age the character).

    Ted Federle did well as the adult Davis, although not shining vocally as much as Soloman. He was also a competent actor. Maria Clark sung beautifully her small but melodious part. Comprimarios were correct.

    Stage direction didn't have much to work with but acting in general was of good level. The projections added an interesting touch.

    Verdict - musically this piece is disappointing, but the libretto is of great value, in part compensating for the weakness of the score. I actually had the pleasure of sitting next to Mr. Davis Miller himself, and even though this seems to be the fourth time he sees his own piece on stage - one could tell that the scenes still touched him. It's a good stage play. I'm not sure if its a good opera. Mr. Howard is a good singer, to be watched.

    Overall score, B
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 31st, 2015 at 01:35 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)


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