Opera about Muhammed Ali seeks to revive art form in America

Posted Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Operas, Sports


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Muhammad Ali is singing. At 10 o’clock on a March morning in the rehearsal studio at the Washington National Opera’s rehearsal facility in Takoma Park, Md., the bass Soloman Howard, a member of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz young artist program, opens his mouth and gives cavernous voice to The Greatest.

The opera is called Approaching Ali, and it was written by the 37-year-old composer D.J. Sparr. It represents the second stage of WNO’s nascent effort to foster new American opera. The American Opera Initiative began last fall with a program of three new 20-minute chamber operas; Approaching Ali, which played earlier this month, lasts an hour. Eventually, the plan is that the composers of some of the 20-minute works will graduate to hourlong pieces, which in turn will prepare them to write full-length new operas — like Jeanine Tesori’s The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, which will have its world premiere at the Terrace Theater in December.

At the moment, though, everyone in the room — composer, conductor, program administrator, singers and a handful of patrons — is focused on hearing Ali sing for the first time. Is the opera working? How can it be improved? For Davis Miller, who wrote the libretto, the occasion is particularly momentous, not to say bizarre. The opera is based on his memoir, The Tao of Muhammad Ali, and its protagonist — played alternately by a boy soprano and the adult baritone David Kravitz — is Miller himself.

How do you create new opera, 21st-century opera, American opera? Under Francesca Zambello, its new artistic director, WNO is joining a number of companies nationwide in trying to find new ways to come up with possible answers.

The first step is training: training composers and training singers. WNO is casting its new commissions with singers from its Domingo-Cafritz young artist program, and the program is being (deservedly) revamped. To head it, as well as the commissioning initiative, Zambello brought in Michael Heaston — who at 34 is still able to bear the label “wunderkind” — whose experience ranges from consulting on the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts to running the young artist program at the Glimmerglass Festival, which Zambello heads. (He will continue to hold both positions.)

“It’s easy for programs of this nature to have an adverse effect,” Heaston says. “It’s possible to beat the artistry out of people instead of promoting it.”

As the new director of the Domingo-Cafritz program, Heaston’s goal is to polish artists who are ready for careers, not train raw talent — as the program tried to do in the past. He’s started a more rigorous auditioning procedure; 600 musicians applied this year for the 12 spots (an increase) available in the 2013-14 season. Where Domingo-Cafritz singers used to travel to study with the teachers of their choice — which often meant trips to New York, squeezed in around other commitments — the program now has voice teachers in-house, including Diana Soviero, a soprano revered among opera aficionados. Other new features include mentors in the form of an artist-in-residence — next season, Deborah Voigt — and “master teachers” who will come in at intervals throughout the season.

Zambello also sees the young artist program as having audience-building potential. “It comes back to what I call the home team,” she said. “We need our Washington Nationals. And I want those young artists to become that, and that they come back more when they’re successful — that there’s much more of a connection to the company.”

Young singers’ needs are increasingly being met. Young composers, on the other hand, tend to be thrown in at the deep end when it comes to writing opera. Graduate programs in composition seldom offer specific courses in writing for the voice (though Sparr took a helpful class called “Words and Music” with William Bolcom at the University of Michigan). And a new opera represents a huge investment of manpower, creative effort and money. For Approaching Ali, which is written for five singers and 10 instruments, the preliminary meeting, Sparr said, involved about 50 people, including production team members and musicians.

Training programs for creative artists are always a shot in the dark. There’s no guarantee that the huge investment of resources is going to pay off — certainly not in any way that will directly benefit the company.

While all of this training is a great thing, it’s striking that it’s necessary.

“We can’t pretend that opera is the equivalent of the pop music it used to be in the 19th century,” Heaston says. “That doesn’t exist anymore in terms of what society sees. But there is a way to bridge a lot of that stuff, but it requires us not just to educate librettists and composers but our audiences. We have to do it in a way that it’s a mission people can understand.”

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