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Monday, February 2, 2015

Live: Approaching Ali offers emotional attachment

Posted by on Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 4:50 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
North Carolina Opera's Approaching Ali
Music by D.J. Sparr, libretto by Mark Campbell and Davis Miller
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015

I've never connected emotionally with an opera until the North Carolina Opera’s Approaching Ali last week. I’ve had a technical understanding of the emotions before—Mozart’s subtleties mean mischief; Wagner’s power chords mean, well, power—but I’ve never felt anything until bass singer Soloman Howard, as the young version of Muhammad Ali, stood on a plinth with gloved hands raised over his head and shouted, “And me, the Quadruple Greatest of All Times!”

It turns out that “based on a true story" really counts for something. Asheville writer Davis Miller, who was in the audience Thursday night at the Carolina Theatre, really did find inspiration from Ali: first as a troubled boy who’d lost his mother to illness and was roused by the defiant strength of a televised champ, and then as a rudderless, middle-aged father who met an aging, Parkinsonian Ali at the boxer’s mother’s house in Louisville, Kentucky.

Based upon Miller’s novel The Tao of Muhammad Ali, Approaching Ali tells that story, split between the two times in his past. The one-act opera’s run continued Saturday night at Enloe Magnet High School in Raleigh.

Although Approaching Ali is unquestionably an opera, it owes as much to the movies. Composer D.J. Sparr’s score had a running relationship to the action and libretto similar to the way Spike Lee used an almost continuous soundtrack behind films such as Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X. Sparr’s music rarely came to the fore, but it wasn't background, either. Instead, his 10-piece chamber orchestra functioned like an ancient Greek chorus, providing a running commentary to the action.

Sparr used the vibraphone to communicate worry and anxiety while the strings conveyed narrative progress. For action sequences, drums and bells appeared as sudden storms, accented by a piercing flute. Ranging from a hypnotic gamelan clang to a sustained drum corps rumble, the music possessed a suspended feel, smoothing the split staging. Characters commuted between Miller’s 1964 childhood home in Winston-Salem and Ali’s mother’s 1989 Louisville living room as though in a film flashback, even establishing a third, timeless area for Ali and both versions of Miller to sing a trio.

Howard’s full bass—which sounds at times like a simultaneous bass and a tenor—gave Ali the necessary legendary gravitas. Other standout vocals came from sixth-grader Evan Tylka as young Davis Miller. His unearthly, clear voice made him seem to have come from the past. As Ali’s mother Odessa, Maria Clark was the most natural actor in the production.

Clark wandered in and out of the evening Ali and Miller spent together, humming two lines of a spiritual to restore normality to scenes that sometimes drifted between memories. She also had some of the best lines in the libretto, which Miller co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Campbell. Entering stage as she held a crock between potholders, she ended a meditation on fate by Ali and Miller with “Everything happens for a reason… including this chili." It was a classic sitcom moment.

Though Approaching Ali is a 55-minute one-act, a few scenes could benefit from more staging detail. Still images were projected onto a screen on the backdrop to aid Miller’s introduction and give a glimpse of Ali in his prime. It was hard to know whether the use of more images, or even video sequences, would have competed with the characterization or the audience’s ability to manage action onstage, on the backdrop screen and on the supertitle screen above. During a scene in which young Miller watched Ali on television, some video would certainly have been useful.

No doubt that was a tough decision for director David Carl Toulson to make in designing a very portable production for both a professional stage like that of the Carolina Theatre and less conventional opera spaces such as the Enloe High auditorium. Toulson’s production was so versatile and spare, in fact, that Approaching Ali could just as easily be done in a boxing gym or community center—an admirable and entirely intentional choice by Toulson and the North Carolina Opera. Kinetic and illusionistic elements like set changes, costume changes and more complex action were sacrificed in favor of elements of reality: characterization, development. straightforward documentary fact. Toulson’s telling respected the fact that these characters are still living.

Approaching Ali thoroughly lacked the kind of preciousness that has caused traditional opera audiences to diminish. It was refreshing, for instance, to hear the sound of people munching popcorn in the row behind me while Howard was singing. It's too much to say it was the sound of opera's future, but it at least felt present. 

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