“I don’t have to be what you want me to be…”
The spirit of these words rang triumphantly at the pivotal awakening of young Davis Miller in the World Premiere of Approaching Ali, the closing production of the 2012-2013 American Opera Initiative presented by Washington National Opera. A Libretto by Mark Campbell and Davis Miller with music by D.J. Sparr, Approaching Ali speaks to the sincere, joyous and climatic moment in which Davis Miller has an impromptu dinner with Muhammad Ali, the man that inspired him to be more and rise above the challenges of being bullied and dealing with the loss of his mother at a young age.
Based on the book The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller, the opera invites the audience into the intimate conversation between Davis, Muhammad Ali and Ali’s mother as Davis builds the courage to meet the man whom he admired as a child when coping with the pangs of life. A simple knock at the door led to an ongoing relationship to present day in which the families of Miller and Ali have formed a formidable and genuine bond of friendship and love. It shows how a young boy from North Carolina was inspired by the presence and spirit of Muhammad Ali through the window of a television screen and how twenty years later as that young boy now approached middle age, he desired to rekindle the spirit that gave him courage and vision during his childhood tribulations by knocking on the door of Muhammad Ali mother’s door in Louisville.
Directed by Nicole A. Watson, the piece transitioned back and forth between two significant time periods: the experiences of young Davis Miller struggling with grief and the grown Davis Miller having dinner with Ali. Based on the fluidity and delicate intricacies placed through the scenes, no one would believe that this was Watson’s first time directing an opera. Her blocking and character direction, coupled with the beautiful scene design, costume design and technical aspects of Paul Taylor, Martha Mountain, and Lynly Saunders created a world in which the opera novice, sports lover or curious theatre patron could embrace, empathize and engage with the story.
The cast which included David Kravitz in his WNO debut (Davis Miller), Solomon Howard, current member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (Muhammad Ali), Aundi Marie Moore, Alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (Odessa Clay), Ethan McKelvain in his WNO debut (Young Davis), Tim Augustin (Roy Miller), and Catherine Martin in her WNO debut (Sara Miller) all provided emotional, authentic character portrayals with powerful voices to couple the dynamic libretto and further support the words of Davis Miller’s The Tao of Muhammad.
As a young artist, 13 year old Ethan McKelvain, did an excellent job embodying the sadness, fear, and isolation experienced by young Davis Miller during the passing of his mother and the bullying he experienced at school. The youthfulness, innocence and purity of his voice supplemented the emotional torment that many children feel when dealing with life that too often remains unspoken.
Solomon Howard portrayed Muhammad Ali during two times of his life, vacillating between the energetic champ that “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” and the aging Muhammad Ali in which the onset of his disease begins to manifest physically through occurrences such as falling quickly into sleep and tremors in the arms. The richness and depth of his bass voice, along with his characterization of giant gentleness, allowed the viewer to see the sheer sincerity and kindness of the champ. This contrast with the adult Davis Miller (David Kravitz), whose sometimes quirky yet loveable reminiscent moments of childhood fear and excitement as he debated on knocking at the door painted a beautiful picture of how life always gives us permission to dream again and live into the fullness of who we envision ourselves to be. Kravitz’s portrayal of Miller allowed us to remember that the spark of our lives does not have to die, but that our passions can be fulfilled regardless of the trials we experience in life. This is reiterated in the beautiful trio between Kravitz, McKelvain and Augustin who portrayed Davis Miller’s father, Roy Miller. Augustin exuded the real concern and pains of a father who desires to provide and protect his child, but does not know how to break the barriers of pain and grief that have built walls around the child’s heart.
Yet one of the most powerful scenes occurred between Aundi Marie Moore (Odessa Clay) and Catherine Martin (Sara Miller). The dynamic emotional and vocal power of their duet during their time of operatic prayer over their children could truly move one to tears. The heartfelt sentiment that filled the stage allowed one to remember their times of prayer and concern over those who are closest to his or her hearts.
The orchestra, led by conductor Steven Jarvi, the newly appointed conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, did a phenomenal job in bringing Sparr’s eclectic blend of chants, eastern cultural sounds, American sounds, dharma drummings, and guitar/rock references to life.
The American Opera Initiative is on the brink of a phenomenal cultural and artistic revolution by presenting opera in an innovative way for the American culture. Approaching Ali is a piece that can reach audiences that are unaware of the art form of opera in a positive an engaging way. It is a piece that supports the educational benefits of the arts, the love of sports fanatics, the need for education on the increasing problem of bullying in the school systems and most importantly, the spirit of the human heart.
Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.
Approaching Ali played at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC on Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 2:00 pm. For more information on future Kennedy Center events visit their website.