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April 20, 2010

'Shadowboxer,' opera about legendary Joe Louis, premieres at Clarice Smith Center


Joe Louis, the celebrated “Brown Bomber,” deflated Nazi propaganda with his two-minutes-in-the-first-round defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938, but the boxer found it a little harder to fight racism and personal weaknesses. The ups and downs of Louis’s life have been incorporated into an ambitious opera called “Shadowboxer” that has received a theatrically impressive premiere from Maryland Opera Studio. The words and music, alas, do not have quite enough punch to leave an indelible impact.

Frank Proto’s carefully crafted score is at its strongest when moving into pop/jazz idioms, which allows the vocal lines welcome melodic freedom. But much of the time, singers are stuck in ponderous recitative mode, wading through a lot of text while the orchestra churns thickly and often obviously (string tremolos and percussive whacks invariably signal stress or ominous developments).

John Chenault’s subtly rhyming libretto


packs in too much detail to allow for a tight focus on the central character, and several lines land with a thud — “Your world is a boxing ring,” “The only way out is to fight your way out,” “The past is a graveyard.” At its best, though, the text sets up various historic incidents and dramatic situations evocatively. (This may be the first opera to mention the IRS, the boxer’s longtime nemesis; the n-word and several other ugly epithets are also sung.)

The piece is built on a flashback device, which finds a wheelchair-bound Louis in the opening scene facing death in the form of a boxer wearing a skeletal mask — an awfully creaky approach. Still, it’s hard not to be caught up in the eventful Louis story, which touches on so many compelling issues.

The production, directed with an almost choreographic flair by Leon Major, has a cool, sleek look. Erhard Rom’s minimalist set is filled in with various projections (sometimes, as when standard World War II newsreel footage flashes by, the opera starts to look like a musical version of a History Channel documentary). David O. Roberts’ spot-on costumes explore myriad shades of black and white. The ring scenes are neatly executed, with the boxing mimed by two actors.

As the older Louis, Jarrod Lee could use more tonal variety and heft, but his passionate phasing hits the mark. Duane A. Moody, as Young Joe, likewise sings vividly. Adrienne Webster uses her warm mezzo to keen effect as Marva, one of the boxer’s wives (wisely, the others are not crammed into the opera). And soprano Carmen Balthrop brings considerable style and sensitivity to the role of Lillie, Louis’ mother.

The well-drilled chorus adds a lot to the performance. Same for the excellent orchestra in the pit and jazz band located upstage, all conducted in sure, expressive fashion by Timothy Long.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 AM | | Comments (2)


This work genuinely intrigued me, but they "talk" too much. (I.e., I usually hate recitative; one always wants it to move along as quickly as possible. This is one the things I can't stand about Händel or Vivaldi operas; the actual music is constantly interrupted by sing-songy talk-talk whose novelty wears out quickly.) If you want to really impress audiences and make this an "opera," then turn it into something like Puccini's "Turandot" or Berg's "Wozzeck," with wall-to-wall music that's _never_ boring. ("Wozzeck" may not be as attractive as "Turandot," but it certainly keeps your attention.)

With such examples, why do so many of these newer operas over-explain/justify themselves? They try too hard. Let the music talk for you!

I reviewed this too. I was pretty disappointed in the opera's failure to explore boxing itself:

Thanks for the link. (And apologies for being slow to get this posted. I escaped for a few Web-free days.) TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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