Archive for April, 2010

[originally posted here April 12, 2010]

Get off the ropes! Hands up! Get some! 1-2-1-2! Don’t throw it! Lead with the hook! Hug him! Break! Back off! Turn and jab! Turn and jab!

The bleachers at Ritchie Coliseum shook as the crowd shouted encouragement for the boxers at an invitational match hosted by the Terps Boxing Club. Swept up in the excitement was a group of young singers, all students in the Maryland Opera Studio graduate program, who were on hand to lend their classmate Jarrod Lee support as he sang the national anthem.

Attending the March 6 Rumble at Ritchie was just one of the new experiences the young singers had to prepare for their roles in “Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis.” The new work, three years in the making, will have its world premiere April 17-25 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, Louis became one of the country’s first African-American heroes. He also became a symbol of democratic freedom in 1938 after defeating Max Schmeling, a German favorite of Adolph Hitler. This at a time when African Americans were fighting for freedoms of their own in America.

The singers not only went ringside, they also strapped on boxing gloves in a session with club members, getting a first-hand perspective on what it’s like to offer your face to an opponent’s fist —and how to avoid it. In addition, studio Director Leon Major had cast members watch films on boxing and take combat classes to learn how to move like an athlete, though none of the singers will do their own fighting. They’ll blend into the on-stage audience while doubles do the work.

Peter Burroughs MA ‘91, DMA ‘11 got a head start on preparing for his role as Schmeling. Though pitted against Louis as a symbol of Nazism, Schmeling became one of Louis’ closest friends later in life.

Burroughs began working out six days a week with a kinesiology alumnus and former voice student. “I saw one of the first costume renderings and it was just a pair of boxing trunks and a robe. I figured I’d better get in better shape. I thought I was doing this because of vanity, but it’s been one of the best exercises in discipline … I can’t say I’m nearly as disciplined as a boxer. Those guys [in the club] are fantastic. They do three times as much as I do in a workout.”

Burroughs also gained an appreciation for the mental strength it takes to be a boxer. “It was hard to get into how two men get into the ring and fight.”

All this was on top of the rare opportunity to work with living composers to create new operatic roles. “Shadowboxer’s” principal cast members—including students Adrienne Webster and Lee —collaborated with composer Frank Proto and librettist John Chenault to shape their characters and put their unique vocal stamp on the music.

“Frank and John came to hear us last year to get a feel for who we were as performers, including our vocal range and other aspects of our voices,” says Webster, singing the role of Joe Louis’ first wife, Marva Trotter. “The idea that a composer was writing a piece of music that I was going to be the first person to perform was very surreal.

“The Maryland Opera Studio was my top choice [of schools] because of the unique opportunities it offers. I am very humbled by this experience. … It’s a great honor and a great amount of responsibility,” she says.

Maryland Opera Studio Manager Laura Lee Everett, says these kinds of experiences are a hallmark of the Opera Studio’s two-year program. All graduates walk out the door with at least two roles, some in a foreign language, under their belts, she says, “so they understand how to develop a role and commit to the character from the moment they walk onstage until the curtain falls.”

The students also work with world-class artists such as Carmen Balthrop, who will play the role of Lillie Brooks, Joe Louis’s mother. Balthrop, who teaches in the School of Music, was also instrumental in bringing Proto, the composer, into the project.

“It’s an incredibly powerful experience for these students to be able to work with a living composer and build their characters [roles] from the ground up,” she says.

Jarrod Lee, who is playing the role of Old Joe Louis, echoes Balthrop’s sentiments. “I’m extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to work with such an extraordinary cast and creative team and be a part of something at the University of Maryland that is truly innovative. And it’s an honor to represent the essence of Joe Louis.”

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