With Approaching Ali, the story of how the boxer inspired a struggling writer, the North Carolina Opera fights above its weight class | Music Feature | Indy Week
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With Approaching Ali, the story of how the boxer inspired a struggling writer, the North Carolina Opera fights above its weight class 

The knockout: Soloman Howard, who plays Muhammad Ali in the opera Approaching Ali, pays homage to Neil Leifer's iconic 1965 image of Ali defeating Sonny Liston.

Photo by Justin Cook

The knockout: Soloman Howard, who plays Muhammad Ali in the opera Approaching Ali, pays homage to Neil Leifer's iconic 1965 image of Ali defeating Sonny Liston.

Muhammad Ali begins to chant. Two versions of the writer Davis Miller—one, a scrawny, bullied boy; the other, a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged man—join the heavyweight champ.

"I don't have to be what you want me to be," they yell. "I don't have to be what you want me to be."

This defiant edict is the central message of the one-act opera Approaching Ali. Composed by Richmond-based guitarist D.J. Sparr, Approaching Ali stems from the Asheville author Miller's memoir, The Tao of Muhammad Ali. It recounts how Ali inspired the young Miller to persevere through his mother's death and a rough childhood in Winston-Salem, how Miller's life changed after a day with the boxer many years later, and how the 73-year-old legend continues to motivate others despite his gradual debilitation from Parkinson's disease.

Ali is also about the power of family. Ali's mother, Odessa Clay, and Miller's parents, Roy and Sara, help and haunt their sons, negotiating their independence in a difficult world.

An almost unbelievable story about a unique hero, staged in a decidedly unconventional way, Approaching Ali gives the North Carolina Opera the rare opportunity to make a populist plea.

Ali won't be performed in Fletcher Opera Theater or Memorial Auditorium, where the NCO traditionally stages its work. Instead, bass Soloman Howard—fresh off his big-stage run at the Metropolitan Opera as the King in Aida—will don satin trunks and vermillion gloves at Durham's Carolina Theatre and Raleigh's Enloe Magnet High School. Samuel McCoy will conduct a nimble, 10-piece orchestra.

Boxing champions, living composers, chamber orchestras, high-school auditoriums, a shirtless bass singer: Can we still be talking about opera?

It's as though that headstrong chant that Miller and Ali share—"I don't have to be what you want me to be"—has become the de facto slogan for the North Carolina Opera, too.

Soloman Howard works with writer Davis Miller and stage director David Carl Toulson. - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Soloman Howard works with writer Davis Miller and stage director David Carl Toulson.

Without pause, Davis Miller rattles off a few of the literary heavyweights who have written about the sweet science of boxing: Norman Mailer, Lord Byron, Joyce Carol Oates. But Miller has to stop and think about why boxing is such a writer's sport.

"Boxing is just so damn naked," he eventually offers. "It tends to expose. You're going to get stripped and be seen as who you are in some essential way."

Miller has logged hours at the desk and in the ring, neither of which might have happened without Ali's assistance. As a kid, he saw the boxer on television and found the courage and skill to stand up to bullies. In "My Dinner with Ali," a Louisville Courier-Journal story about the beginning of Miller's relationship with Ali, he recalls the empowerment he felt by emulating the boxer. In his parents' basement, he'd stuff a laundry bag with socks and rags, hang it from the ceiling and pound it: "I pulled on a pair of my dad's old brown cotton work gloves and pushed my left hand into that 20-pound marshmallow 200, 300, 500 times a day ... trying to whip out punches so fast they'd be invisible to opponents."

In 1975, when Miller was a 22-year-old competitive kickboxer, he sparred with Ali at the champ's training center in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. He got in a few kicks and punches before Ali landed a single jab. It felt as though the back of Miller's head bounced off his shoulders.

"You sure can hit to be so little," Ali said, putting his arm around Miller.

"I know," Miller replied.

The champ chuckled.

For the next 14 years, Miller kept taking life's hits, too, bouncing from city to city, job to job, until he found himself living a few miles from Ali's mother in Louisville. The same week that he learned he was being laid off, he noticed Ali's giant Winnebago out front. He needed his hero. Miller grabbed a story he'd written about Ali and found himself knocking on the front door. He read his homage aloud.

Ali listened. They talked and ate a meal with Ali's family. The boxer's playfulness stunned Miller. He performed a levitation trick and locked Miller in the bathroom as a prank. Though Ali was already showing some of the Parkinson's symptoms that the rest of the world would see at the 1996 Summer Olympics, the pair even sparred in the front yard. Leaning on their bikes, neighborhood kids watched.

Miller left a changed man. He launched a writing career, which now includes his Ali memoir and a book about Bruce Lee. His next book, which recounts many more stories about his continuing friendship with Ali, is due this fall. Miller spent a few days with Ali and his family last September. In an advanced stage of Parkinson's, Ali hasn't spoken in years.

"His eyes remain very intense and remarkably clear," Miller says. "Mine are yellowed, but his are downright youthful. In addition to being painful and sad, there's something very beautiful. That's probably one of the reasons boxing has been attractive to writers: You see people become quite mortal in the ring. They enter the ring nearly invincible and, round by round, they get broken down. It can be seen as following the content of a person's life."

Soloman Howard grew up around the boxing ring, not the opera. His uncle Richard sparred at Sugar Ray Leonard's place in Maryland. As a kid, Howard studied Ali's matches on videotape and noticed how Leonard emulated his footwork—that lightness, that float-like-a-butterfly thing.

"When it came time to have the opportunity to portray Ali," Howard says, "I already had a lot of ideas about how he acted, how he moved, his character. Even his speech was poetic."

Howard and Sparr, Approaching Ali's composer, rendezvoused in Washington, D.C., before any music was written. They ran through scales and became familiar with each other's abilities. Sparr tailored the arias to Howard's powerful bass, so that Howard is this opera's definitive Ali.

click to enlarge Soloman Howard plays Muhammad Ali in the Opera Approaching Ali - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Soloman Howard plays Muhammad Ali in the Opera Approaching Ali

"I set the bar for this role," Howard says. "It's up to the next performer to take it from there, but I get to decide first what I want this character to be. It's a great opportunity that you don't always get. It's not typical in the opera profession that we're singing music by composers who are actually writing new stuff. More than 90 percent of what we do is work by composers who are long gone."

Though once part of one of the country's best college choirs at Morgan State University, Howard didn't see his first opera until 2008. It was at the Metropolitan Opera; last fall, he starred there. If that ascent seems rapid, his voice explains his power. His Ali seems deep enough to register on the Richter scale. But Howard's physicality and his acting—which, in Ali, moves fluidly from the young champion to the Parkinson's-plagued elder—distinguishes him, too.

"With the King in Aida, I just walked onstage," he says. "With Ali, I'm throwing combinations. I'm actually boxing, running around. I have on trunks instead of the garb of a king."

Opera singers aspire to perform the biggest roles on the biggest stages, and Howard's no different. Aida at the Met, for instance, was a dream. But Approaching Ali offers him a unique opportunity, aside from the custom arias. He gets to embody a living icon, to tie a form that many associate with the past to the present.

"It's just my hope that Ali sees this," Howard says. "I know he's aware of it. For him to be able to see it, even just a recorded version, just to show Ali how he gave life to others in different ways: You never know how you affect others."

It's a bustling Saturday afternoon at the Raleigh Times Bar. Couples laugh and tip back pints. Parents down burgers and rock infants in car seats. On the televisions over the bar, Duke's Blue Devils have opened a big first-half lead against the Louisville Cardinals. Timothy Myers, the North Carolina Opera's artistic director and principal conductor, looks up from a plate of pork tacos to survey the action—on the screen and in the pub.

This, he says, is the opera's audience, even if they don't know it yet.

"If I were to announce next season we were doing Madame Butterfly and Elixir of Love and Romeo and Juliet, what is that? Who cares?" Myers says between bites. "They would be very good, but look around you, in this bar: What does that season do for them?"

Myers, 39, is as in-demand as he is demanding. Recruited to conduct three Opera Company of North Carolina productions in 2008, he brought youth and energy to the role, helping spark the 2010 merger with Capital Opera Raleigh to form the NCO. The hired gun stayed on, even as his guest-conducting career took him across the world. He lifted the baton for Opera Philadelphia, the Houston Grand Opera and the Fort Worth Opera last year alone, at Johannesburg's Opera Africa and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012.

But he's rooted in Raleigh now. Recently engaged, he's building a home near downtown. Connections to community cultural organizations are personal, so he wants to leverage them to continue reinvigorating the state's opera. The old arts model—retain your small, core audience with the same tried-and-true season each year—worked when you were the only game in town. Now, as the Triangle's cultural offerings and demographics have expanded, organizations like the NCO must respond to those changes or open to empty auditoriums.

"The subscription model is dead, or definitely on a respirator," Myers says. "The data tells us that people of my generation, if they go to a performance of the opera once every few years, they consider themselves a regular attendee."

The new push means broadening offerings to appeal to multiple, discrete audiences and taking performances out of the gilded theaters. Organizations across the Triangle are changing in similar ways. Duke Performances closely matches events and venues, staging shows in churches and dilapidated buildings. The American Dance Festival sometimes works in rock clubs, while even the North Carolina Symphony has embraced small shows in intimate bars.

"Because we don't have large static set pieces in Approaching Ali, it can go into other spaces," Ali director David Carl Toulson explains. "I love that it's going into a school. But conceivably, Ali could go into a library or a bookstore with a big enough open space. A boxing gym would be fantastic. It has a perfect space: the ring."

Ali clocks in at a brisk 55 minutes. The set is split between Miller's childhood home and Ali's living room. The lighting cues are basic. When Ali comes to the Carolina Theatre, attendees can take popcorn and beer to their seats. The calendar of Raleigh host, Enloe Magnet High School, sandwiches "North Carolina Opera" between wrestling and an academic competition. It's a perfect way to leave the familiar behind.

"I want to enlarge the scope of the NCO. That's why you see us doing things like Approaching Ali in other spaces, Opera in the Pines at an outdoor amphitheater where kids come free, as well as the Wagner concert and traditional productions of Verdi and Mozart in the theater," Myers says. "The sum of the parts is a company that's alive, growing, advancing the art form and tied into the fabric of the community."

When Myers saw the Washington National Opera premiere Approaching Ali last year, the Kennedy Center crowd's diversity and enthusiasm suggested that the piece would be a way to do just that in Raleigh. People cheered after the arias. It was like being at a ballgame, not the opera. Myers loved it.

Ali was the first of many commissions through the WNO's American Opera Initiative. The plan is to train young American composers to learn the operatic form. That generation grows up and writes more mature work, ideally rejuvenating the form and guaranteeing its future. Sparr fits that composer profile: If the guitarist and composer could knock on a hero's door, he's not sure if he'd pick Igor Stravinsky or Eddie Van Halen.

A traditionalist might flinch at such genre-bending, but then Brahms has been dead for more than 100 years. A lot of opera companies, even the biggest ones, see the work of living composers as a crucial part of their sustained success. In his first season at the NCO's helm, Myers sprang Benjamin Britten's dissonant The Turn of the Screw on Raleigh. He staged Philip Glass' Les Enfants Terribles here in 2012.

Raleigh didn't grumble about the Glass show; instead, it bought every ticket.

In Ali, characters step out of their respective periods to sing arias together. Sparr's music creates space for suspension, like holding your breath in order to keep from breaking a spell. At one point, a duet between Ali's and Miller's mothers recalls the shimmering clang of gamelan.

"I thought, 'If Debussy was hanging out with the Dalai Lama, what would that sound like?'" Sparr says. "They're making a push in opera to stay current, and the way to stay current is to have living composers write pieces. Almost every colleague I have is writing an opera. But not every colleague I have is writing orchestra pieces."

PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook

Just as Myers finishes his tacos, Louisville begins to chip away at Duke's lead. Ali, a Louisville native who just got out of the hospital ahead of his 73rd birthday, is reportedly watching this game, too.

Myers identifies with the theme of the underdog—the lower-ranked Cardinals, the aging Ali, the opera company struggling for its ascension. Ali is not only a way for the NCO to connect with new parts of its community; it's also a way to build partnerships with bigger companies like the Washington National Opera. NCO can boost its national profile both by partnering on new repertoire and giving a young singer a major role in a regional production before taking it to even bigger stages.

"We're continuing to fight above our weight, artistically," Myers says. "Our philosophy has been we don't do regional opera; we want to do world-class opera for a world-class community."

During the next three months, the NCO will announce plans to sign on to the commission of a major new piece. Their partners will be three companies that are "many times our size—like, at least 10 times," Myers boasts.

"My goal is to be the poster child for regional companies," he says. "When industry leaders ask 'What regional companies are really killing it?,' the North Carolina Opera is the first name that comes up."

The North Carolina Opera, Myers hopes, will never be what people expect it to be.

This article appeared in print with the title "Rumble at the opera."

  • In a production about Muhammad Ali, the North Carolina Opera fights above its weight class

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