2014-15 has so far been a terrific season for new opera in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle. Britten’s Curlew River received a sterling professional production, starring Ian Bostridge, thanks to Carolina Performing Arts in November. Duke Performances brought Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang’s Whisper Opera to Durham in January. Approaching Ali, though lighter in theme than the other operas, offers a similar mastery of operatic form on a small scale, and was a welcome addition to this significant area trend.
North Carolina Opera has staked its territory by bringing both classic and modern opera to the area. Productions since 2010 have included Philip Glass’s Les Enfants Terribles and a new opera by Duke composer John Supko, entitled All Souls. D.J. Sparr’s Approaching Ali, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Davis Miller, enjoyed good press when the Washington National Opera premiered it in June 2013. Bringing it to Raleigh was a smart decision by North Carolina Opera: its short length and popular subject matter can bring in an otherwise indifferent audience, and its modest performing forces — 10-piece orchestra, six vocalists — don’t require the economic resources of Puccini or Mozart.
The opera sparkles in its musical elocution of a simple story: Davis Miller, a struggling writer, knocks on the door of Muhammad Ali’s mother’s house in Louisville, 1989. While in Ali’s presence, Miller recalls his childhood, and the strength Muhammad Ali (or, at the time, Cassius Clay) gave to a 12-year-old Miller grieving the death of his mother. Ali again empowers the adult Miller to believe in his own strength.
Two mothers frame the story: Odessa Clay, sung by Maria Clark, and Sara Miller, sung by Jennifer Seiger. Their maternal music is simple — most often diatonic, with a “down-home” feel, adding a subtle melodic foil to the more static Miller and Ali; the adult Davis Miller, sung by Ted Federle, transformed from a timid fan-boy to an adult ready for creative responsibility in the course of the 55 minutes. Federle’s rich baritone was perfect for the role, articulating Miller’s belief that “today is not the same” but realizing his metamorphosis toward the opera’s end with his belief in himself.
Soloman Howard dominated the stage as Muhammad Ali; most of the opera stages the older Ali in 1989, and Howard presented a taciturn former champion with a shaking left hand. But as Miller’s and Ali’s relationship developed over chili prepared by Odessa Clay, Howard brought Ali to life. Howard’s vocal power was subdued by the writing; he only hinted at his agility in a scene pretending to levitate a magazine. But fresh off a stint at the Metropolitan Opera in Aida, Howard was the evening’s star; having created the role in 2013, he showed his artistic imagination through his dramatic bass register.
Evan Tylka, a 6th-grader at the Cathedral School in Raleigh, ably sang as the young Davis Miller, and Timothy Sparks’s role as Roy Miller attempted strength but showed diffidence at the moment of grief. Samuel McCoy directed the small orchestra with precision and a strong sense of musical arch. He brought Sparr’s score to life, and offered a musical reading that highlights Sparr’s tonal language with more theatrical, edgier moments.
North Carolina Opera has made a number of productions and musical decisions in order to secure the future of opera in the Raleigh area; they are not strictly committed to the traditional subscription-based model, and their forays into newer music are a welcome change to an otherwise static musical form and repertoire. Approaching Ali was something of a risk, but showed the company’s commitment to musical vitality rather than to a hackneyed economic model.