Approaching Ali

approaching aliAPPROACHING ALI– Washington National Opera’s new work about America’s great prizefighter Mohammed Ali.  

Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre

In this premiere performance of Approaching Ali, this hour-long opera tells the story of a reporter’s transformative meeting with the boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Approaching Ali features Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Soloman Howard (Joe in Show Boat) as Muhammad Ali, David Kravitz as Davis Miller, Aundi Marie Moore as Odessa Clay, and Ethan McKelvain as Young Davis. The opera will be performed with a chamber orchestra conducted by Steven Jarvi, and receive a complete staging by director Nicole Watson and a design team with mentorship provided by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.

Three Questions
1. What is this production trying to achieve?
2. Was it successful?
3. Is the thing that it succeeded or failed at something that’s worth doing at all?

Please leave a comment and keep the conversation going.

2 comments on “Approaching Ali”

  1. Andrea Smith

    I did not initially know what to expect from an opera about Muhammad Ali. Musical theater with jazz, rhythm and blues, or popular music seemed better suited to this transcendent figure with songs such as “The Greatest Love of All”, “Rumble in the Jungle” , “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” which were included in a previous movie about his championship years. This story, which showed us an Ali shaking and slowed by Parkinson’s Disease, was more concerned with the development of a relationship between the author, whose idolization of Ali helped him deal with the death of his mother, bullying at school and writer’s block later on during his professional life worked. The soothing melody of Ali’s mother (why his mother and not one of his wives?) and conversational melodies matched the slowed pace of Ali’s life at this stage. Moments where he hospitably invited his fan into his home, asked him to share his story-and dozed off in the middle of it-kidded with his guest (April Fools) and briefly demonstrated the fancy footwork and boxing ability of his prime years.
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    Approaching Ali was an apt title for this now accessible hero who was not surrounded by an entourage or living in a high security compound. He was living a simple life loved, cared for and understood by those around him and at peace with his fate in life. At times philosophical, this Ali encouraged his fan to keep on fighting and not to question God. He had seen and experienced it all and came full circle. This same man who overcame poverty and initially achieved fame representing his country in the Olympics, feared and reviled when he changed his name and his ‘gasp’ religion, practically blacklisted as a professional boxer who conscientiously refused to fight in what he considered an unjust war and lost financial opportunities and respect, became a respected world figure and de facto diplomat to the Muslim world and in his later years was granted the ultimate honor of lighting the Olympic flame. All of this was alluded to in this short work.
    The screens on each side of the stage which projected the words were distracting, because the Opera was in easily understandable English and audience members were also provided with the text??? The lighting effects, screens and simple set were excellent. I especially appreciated the flickering light of an unseen television screen and the well choreographed and synchronized shadow boxing scene between the young Davis and Muhammad Ali. I appreciated the contrast between the angelic soprano of the young Davis, the powerful bass of Ali and the baritone of the older Davis, the plaintive tenor of Davis’s father and the too short duet between Davis’s mother and Ali’s mother. I hope they will further develop these two characters in future editions of this opera. I also would have liked to see the orchestra instead of guessing what instruments were being played-especially when we were told in a post program discussion the new instruments that were created and used. Maybe next time the musicians can be placed at the same level and to the side instead of in the orchestra pit.
    It was an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I hope that they can take it on the road and share it with audiences of all ages but especially with those dealing with physical impediments, bullying and the isolation of age or paralysis of depression. It would serve as a great discussion starter for various stage of life issues.

  2. Robert Darling

    A wonderful music-theater work one hopes reaches a wide audience. The spare set evoked both era, place and expectations with the use of the door metaphor to allow us to approach. Hows wonderful to experience the skillful use of Music Theater means to tell the story and draw us into the action. Clearly our expectations move wider than a bio-lesson. While we obtained the biographic information about both Ali and Davis, the real story evolved into a hero / buddy journey of emotion and charm.

    The use of sub-titles in two small TV Screens either side of the proscenium troubled. One kept roving left and right from the action to read what we clearly heard in the Terrace Theater. Initially I wondered if they were placed just under the lib of the stage in the center their use might be less demanding. The Terrace Theater might explore this.

    Use of language in Opera has deemed “sur” or “sub -titles” a needed crutch since the 1980s. Results in 18th, 19th Century opera produce useful information about the actual drama / story being explored onstage while it happens. An unfortunate result, abandonment of programs to enable our trained singers to communicate in their own language, create now a new crop of singers feeling less impulse and need to learn how to enunciate in English. The reviews on this crutch remain mixed. Approaching Ali did not need the added distraction. The singers sang beautifully and the libretto, in the tradition of many opera librettos, simplified and repeated text without sacrificing clarity, verbal interest and poetry.

    This opera / music-theater work needs further performances and should receive them across the country.

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