While the Dresser has done things like played lacrosse for a semester in college, donned the white jacket to fence, and participated in endless games of murder ball, she has never been into the martial arts and certainly not boxing. Therefore, what would she think of an opera based on Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949? On April 18, 2010, the Dresser heard and saw Shadowboxer, an impressive world premiere at the University of Maryland's Clarisse Smith Performing Arts Center. The work is by composer Frank Proto and librettist John Chenault under the stage direction of Leon Major and baton of conductor Timothy Long.
THE BROWN BOMBER FROM HIS WHEELCHAIR
Chenault anchors his poetic libretto about the larger-than-life boxer, nicknamed "the brown bomber," through the memories of a sick old man confined to a wheelchair--Louis at the end of his life and now a shadow boxer fending off the ghosts of his former days. The audience learns that Louis came into the ring with stringent rules that helped promote him as a clean-living and honest fighter, who did not gloat over a fallen opponent. While Champion Louis did not smoke, drink, or do drugs, he was frequently seen in the company of white women despite having a loving wife and supportive mother. His fights with the German boxer Max Schmeling put the eyes of the Nation on him as a political warrior against the Nazi government. However, Louis's military service demonstrated that the people of the United States were still racially prejudiced. By the end of Louis's life, his wife Marva had divorced him twice (Louis was married four times though that is not brought out in the opera), he was in serious debt to the Internal Revenue Service, and he had a severe problem with hardcore drugs like cocaine.
CLASSICAL WITH JAZZ
Frank Proto creates a large classical soundscape for Shadowboxer. His music is complex and has accents that remind the Dresser of Benjamin Britten in Britten's less melodious moments. As a counterbalance to this classical schema played by 41 pit musicians, Proto positions eight jazz musicians on stage with the 15 cast members and twelve choral singers. The jazz occasionally breaks through in numbers like one sung by Louis's mother Lillie.
DON'T KILL HIM
The voice of Soprano Carmen Balthrop (Lillie) interrupts Louis's first fight with Max Schmeling (Louis loses) with profound emotional weight--"Don't kill him," she pleads. Although bass baritone Jarrod Lee as old Joe and tenor Duane A. Moody as young Joe perform credibly, the star of this production is undeniably Carmen Balthrop who understands the nuances of Proto's music. Mezzo-soprano Adrienne Webster as Marva, especially in duet with Balthrop ("a dream of Sunday punches") provides a strong performance.
Adding to the large scale of Shadowboxer are Erhard Rom's minimalist set design and Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White's projection design. One particularly powerful scene occurs when Louis has his second fight with Schmeling. The projections on three screens of Nazi soldiers in combination with the cast sitting in many rows of chairs heighten the tension of the fight. By the way, there is a third performer (non-singing role) Nickolas Vaughan who plays Joe, the boxer. The slow motion choreography works well to portray the fight scenes within the context of old Joe's memory. Leon Major has drawn together an top notch team to present this opera.
Major also uses masks on the players that surround Louis. Why Major chooses to do this is not entirely clear to the Dresser but the most effective use are the black sambo masks used when Louis appears in his soldier's uniform. This clearly serves to heighten the racial isolation and hounding Louis suffers.
There was one thing the Dresser puzzled over and that was who was the female singer who ends the story of Joe Louis's life. However, in a talkback session that followed this performance, the Dresser posed the question and also asked why couldn't that person be the three reporters (played ably by tenor Andrew Owens, baritone Andrew McLaughlin, and baritone Colin Michael Brush) or Louis's mother Lillie? Much to the Dresser's surprise, Leon Major said that was a good question and although the idea for that role involved call and response by an unknown character, the part clearly should have been played by Louis's mother. Leon Major said it had not occurred to him and that his oversight was a mistake. The Dresser says in the next production, which should be by a large opera company, there will be ample opportunity to tweak such things.
Richard Lyons in his poem "Meditations with the Music of Clifford Brown" poignantly captures the environment of Shadowboxer both from the point of view of the ailing Joe Louis looking back on his life and the way that Frank Proto captures this man's life through music.
Meditations with the Music of Clifford Brown
Fatigue and failure, believe me, take up space at the edges
where the mind pushes these, the way wind pushes clouds
just off-shore where coral lies beneath, crippled with syntax,
letting all the voices rise like inhibitions we wish to excavate
with the searchlights piercing the black territories of the sea.
It's the field not the detail, it's the field that holds things fast,
crumbled glass and witch hazel, a field of vision razed by vision.
A man blows a trumpet, two-thirds of his lip in the mouthpiece.
Vision recedes behind perspective like an ancient amphitheater,
all the mis-listenings as numerous as weeds, bristling mercies.
A man inflates his cheeks, and the sound through the bell
swells embedded sensations not held in check so much
as allowed to prowl just there, unnamed, before going down
with an exalted dip beneath the surface I've grown used to,
a practiced grief ready to inflate the red balloon of the heart.
The skin awakens memory, numinous clouds of fog rising,
the muscles riding swollen with blood and undulating algae.
The past is part of how we step out from it and haven't yet
in each new step. That's why separate memories seem contrived,
dressed up with betrayal, and what I said I was in years gone
is just that, too gone to say, as if the instant could hold anything.
My memory is a rough stretch of sand, sand dollars embedded
above a sandy cache of eggs, but, otherwise, the field of vision
is incorruptible. The wind is high, wound-up with machinations
of blowing a path straight through instead of pockmarking the view
with stories in which someone is trying to take it easy on himself.
The wind is high and nothing flies except an engine's high whine.
The salt houses are puffed-up paper lives, isolate seaside lives,
the lungs hyperventilating in such a confined space they are small
blue blossom-spikes at noon and dusk, open and closed at once,
the way the waves pretend to break on the rocks. The human eye
blinks to lubricate itself with tears. Brownie is playing the trumpet,
the sound blasting the decorum of the dead. That's the way
the dead like it, deadly quiet, after the volcanic self has blown its top,
and what it was back then spews so high the clouds curl with ash,
noodles of smoke dissipate to the very edge of everything. One
of me is peaceful, lying among the squash tendrils, the flowers
almost heart-shaped, pulsating at my ear. One of me can't prevent
the instrument from blazing lies through aching eardrum tissue.
I have fantasies of hurting people, hurting what spawns these.
The horsepower clops hooves of wet sand--the ocean recedes.
Panting spirals and trills, Brownie blows each note its signature.
The ones he'll never lip are elegy enough, ripples in my wrists,
one long breath like a banner whooshed out the back of a jet.
What he gives the air to memorize he'll immediately wish back.
He's floating like straw among those bereft of swing, of smokes,
bereft of an old black shoe marking time. The quiet holding still.
Each half-cup of sound empties a plea for mercy, a noisy plea.
A yellow crucifix screeches itself through the trumpet's bell.
I want to drop my arms limp beneath its rise, a deposition,
but I'm not the Son of Man. I'm not Brownie blowing wails.
My memory is a blank stretch of sand, sand dollars embedded
above a turtle's nest. The tentativeness swings: short puffs,
images wiped from the field by a force neither in nor out, a whole
engendered whole, the opaque autobiographical burning whole.
by Richard Lyons
from Fleur Carnivore
Copyright © 2006 Richard Lyons