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Magic and Inspiration in a World Premiere

Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
06/08/2013 -  & June 9*, 2013
D. J. Sparr: Approaching Ali (World Premiere)
David Kravitz (Davis Miller), Solomon Howard (Muhammad Ali), Aundi Marie Moore (Odessa Clay), Ethan McKelvain (Young Davis), Tim Augustin (Roy Miller), Catherine Martin (Sara Miller)
Washington National Opera Orchestra, Steven Jarvi (Conductor)
Paul Taylor (Set Designer), Lynly Saunders (Costume Designer), Martha Mountain (Lighting Designer)

A. Moore, S. Howard (© Scott Suchman)

The audience in the Terrace Theater June 09 was held under the spell and magic of a new opera that Sunday afternoon. An opera that told a story Americans know all too well today of how children can be bullied in schools and how they shrink into their own little worlds of submission, feeling that no one understands them and wondering if anyone ever will. It is a story of role models and the power for good and the enormous inspiration and sway they can hold over children, whether they know it or not.

The libretto by Mark Campbell is based on the book by Davis Miller; a true story of his friendship with Ali and the powerful inspiration he held over him as an adolescent trying to find his own way as a Man. The boy soprano Ethan McKelvain dominates the stage in his solo vocal moments. His haunting and ethereal voice carries you away to his inner world of loneliness and fantasy. Master McKelvain easily held his own onstage against the more mature artists.

The composer D. J. Sparr seemed equally moved by the pathos of the drama. He lovingly sculpted the melodies around his characters to delineate their emotional states of feeling to be easily felt by the audience. The music of a new opera can often leave audiences scratching their heads, wondering what’s going on. But Maestro Sparr’s music has the immediacy of Gershwin, or Menotti, or Copland, and the audience’s reactions are likewise immediate. They were easily caught up in the drama and the power of the music and quick to express their own enthusiasm.

Solomon Howard who portrayed the role of Ali is a superb actor, but his acting is virtually overshadowed by his singing and his powerful, roof-shaking bass voice. To say the very least, his singing is very powerful! Although still a young singer, his voice is ideal for the Italian/French leading lyric repertoire. His voice is exactly what one wants for La sonnambula, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Norma, Faust, etc. I pray he has a smart manager and that his career is not relegated to endless appearances in Porgy and Bess, Showboat, and Aïda, as so many black basses seemed to be doomed. He was truly impressive as Muhammad Ali.

The role of Odessa Clay, Ali’s mama, is a smaller role, but her vocal lines are quite meaty and often in a high tessitura. Soprano Aundi Marie Moore made a very strong showing with her rich and vibrant voice and thrilling upper passages. Everything she sang was a joy to hear. She is an alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program and, as one would expect, is now having an international career.

Maestro Steven Jarvi, who has recently been appointed the new conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, did a superb job in the pit, maintaining a very clean balance between the singers and the instruments, and in bringing out the many colorful passages employed by composer Sparr in his striking orchestration, which were done so with great effect. I hope that D. J. Sparr can possibly quickly compose another one act of equal merit that might act as a companion piece to Approaching Ali. It should be seen all around the US as soon as possible, but opera companies will not always mount a one act by itself. This work, however, could easily be paired with Copland’s The Tender Land, or Menotti’s Help, Help, The Globolinks are Coming. Ali was given an immediate standing ovation in Washington, and with a superb cast it will have the same affect anywhere it is mounted in the US. A Modern Opera for Today’s Audience’s with a real Modern Day Hero...You can’t miss with this one! My congratulations to the WNO, Francesca Zambello, and the American Opera Initiative.

Micaele Sparacino



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