Program Note by Leon Major
After his initial defeat of Joe Louis in 1936, Max Schmeling's stock in Germany rose to a fever pitch. Hitler declared him unbeatable and an example of Aryan superiority.
On June 22, 1938 my father, like millions of others, prepared to listen to the second Louis/Schmeling fight. Could a black man prove the superiority of the democratic system over Hitler's German regime? Could Joe Louis, who represented that democratic ideal, confirm for the public the virtue of democracy and the banality and immorality of Nazism?
The stakes were high.
The fight began and my father went into the kitchen to get a glass of tea. He returned about two minutes later to find the fight was over. He, unwittingly, had missed the whole thing. Joe Louis had knocked out Max Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds of the first round. I don't know if I was actually there as a very young boy or whether I was told about it later, but the event clearly stayed with me.
On October 26, 1951, now in my late teens, Rocky Marciano beat an aging Joe Louis in the eighth round. Louis, always gracious, simply said: "The better man won." Marciano wept. That event also made a deep impression.
No matter who the boxers were that dominated the headlines, my mind always went back to those two events - the Louis defeat of Schmeling and his defeat by Marciano.
There have always been great boxers. Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Graziano, Tony Zale, Jersey Joe Wolcott, Ezzard Charles, Mohammed Ali to name only some, but none captured the imagination of the public the way Joe Louis had. He became a hero to many, an idol to some, and a thorn to others.
All great heroes eventually fall: Hector was slain by Achilles; Paris slew Achilles. The great warrior, Alexander, was crushed in India and the hubris that led Napoleon to Russia destroyed him and his army. The collapse of these extraordinary figures does not lessen their stature but raises it, it makes them human, makes them models we can use as examples of what man is capable of being and becoming - and shouldn't become.
As I turned more and more from non-musical drama to opera the more the idea of an opera based on Joe Louis took hold of my imagination.
It took a very long time to find a sympathetic librettist and composer - over 25 years. Some refused and some didn't feel they had the "feel" for it. It was Carmen Balthrop who introduced me to John Chenault and Frank Proto. When I finally met them I encountered two men who had never written an opera but whose sympathy for Joe Louis was evident. John knew far more about Louis than I did and understood immediately my attraction to Louis. I'm not sure I can even explain my attraction. His courage in the ring is unquestionable, his dignity and grace are exemplary. Like all heroes he was crushed by his own failings, his overweening faith in his own abilities and his own lack of awareness in thinking that his physical prowess and mental efficiency in the ring would remain forever. He was, in the end, defeated by very human frailties. He is a fallen hero but not a tragic one. He had no tragic flaws. He had a passion for women and was one of the most generous of men. If there was a flaw it was naiveté.
It is the very fact that he is human, capable of great accomplishments and, at the same time, capable of stupid decisions and errant ways that make his a very human story. His story shows us how to overcome unbelievable odds and succeed when common sense says we should not.
Shadowboxer was never intended to be an opera about boxing but about a man whose job was boxing and whose life is seen through boxing. And the arena is important - it takes concentration and incredibly hard training to prepare for a fight, it takes courage to enter a ring knowing that you will be jabbed, poked, slugged and eventually beaten. But the opera deals with the man not the boxing world.
Louis' story is not a sentimental one of overcoming adversity - but a humane story of the struggles and agonies we all have in examining and defining our own shadows.
There were many reactions from people when told we were creating an opera about Joe Louis. Some said: "Joe Louis? Why?" Others: "Who's Joe Louis?" And others: "Why hasn't this been done before?" And another asked: "Why not Jackie Robinson?" And some even suggested, "that an opera about a boxer is a truly nutty idea!" But operas are filled with characters who are "nutty" or might be seen as unusual. Puccini gave us Bohemians and bumbling sacristans, Verdi presented us with gamblers and thieves, Bellini dealt with sleepwalkers and Musto and Campbell used Edward Hopper's paintings. It is the creators who can see the possibilities in their protagonists.
Opera was born in and from the aristocracy; it portrayed gods and classical heroes, and dealt with myths handed down over the centuries. And yet, despite this and despite the rarified world of opera it still tells human tales. Mythical and remote heroes and heroines - Ulysses, Poppea and Orpheus, Alcina, Xerxes, Arminda - occupied the early operatic stages. Then came operas inhabited by more earth bound characters - Susanna, Figaro Violetta, Peter Grimes - who seem to be more rooted in daily life. Whether we clothe the characters in tunics or tights, or jeans or helmets, flowing gowns or angels' wings, set them in palaces, castles, kitchens, heavenly abodes or boxing rings, opera always tells stories of passion and conflict, suffering and joy, forgiveness and despair, loss and recovery. How we deal with the trials and tribulations of every day life, how we cope with birth and death, loyalty and betrayal and the other daily vicissitudes of our lives dictates our stature. Opera always presents stories that allow us to see many ordinary human beings rise to greater heights. No matter the century of their creation.
Program Note by Frank Proto
Deciding on the musical language is obviously one of the first matters to attend to when starting a new work. I'm not sure I realized it, but in the case of Shadowboxer, my search for the answer to this question began almost 60 years ago. Rather than offer a traditional description of how the music conveys the story, I've elected to chronicle the path that led me to my musical settings.
My father's juices would have really been turned up with this coming together of his greatest passions, music and sports - specifically baseball and boxing - in one event. Our three-room apartment in Bay Ridge, a working class Italian American section in Brooklyn, was always alive with the sounds of Red Barber's cool play-by-play of the Dodgers, Jimmy Powers' exhortations on The Friday Night Fights, and the unique voice of Milton Cross guiding us through NBC's Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.
Like many kids of my generation I began piano lessons at an early age, and quickly learned how to read the music that dad, also taking voice lessons and having decided that I should be his accompanist, regularly brought home. Repertoire ranged from operatic arias to Neapolitan folk tunes to popular favorites of the day. Among his vocal heroes were Enrico Caruso, Richard Tucker, Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine. Sunday afternoons were usually reserved for reading through music purchased at the local music store in the morning, which was as likely to be something Tucker sang the day before at the Met, as a new Cole Porter tune that Sinatra had recently recorded. Once he brought home a Stan Kenton record that featured the famous bandleader accompanying June Christy in Duke Ellington's Prelude To A Kiss. He couldn't find the sheet music so I had to figure out the tune and work out his key by listening to the record. Pretty heavy stuff for a ten-year old!
Even with all of this activity I didn't really connect with the musical world until an uncle of mine took me to hear the original George Shearing Quintet one night. At the Embers, a chic supper club on New York's East Side, we sat less than 10 feet from the bandstand. Experiencing live music of this quality for the first time was one of those life-changing moments. I was so excited I couldn't sleep a wink that night. Then, as if to complete the one-two punch, two weeks later my uncle took me to Basin Street East to hear the Cannonball Adderly Quintet. It was totally different music from Shearing group, but had the same effect on me. This 13-year-old junior high school boy knew exactly what he wanted to do in life!
Two years later I entered the High School of Performing Arts where another new musical world opened up for me. While jazz was still my main interest, I received a rather rude introduction to classical music. It seemed that in this world one was expected to play the notes quite a bit more accurately than I was accustomed to. Back in Brooklyn I was the best piano player on the block. But that short subway ride into the city might just as well have been a space ship to Mars. The talent I heard at the school scared the daylights out of me. It also fueled what must have been some kind of competitive drive in me because by the time I graduated, as a double bassist, I was able to secure scholarships to both the Manhattan and Juilliard Schools of Music.
Spending the next few years at the Manhattan School, but more importantly, working both as a jazz pianist with my own trio and as a jazz and classical bassist within a wide variety of musical settings - American Symphony Orchestra, Symphony of the Air, Robert Shaw Chorale, Princeton Chamber Orchestra, Broadway shows, jazz clubs, dance bands, etc. - I was becoming comfortable working in many corners of the musical world. I was becoming musically multi-lingual.
In 1966 I began a 30-year stay with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. With the help of music directors Max Rudolf and Thomas Schippers - both alumni of the Metropolitan Opera - as well as the management and musicians of the orchestra, I began to develop my compositional skills. Orchestras are routinely criticized for performing the same basic repertoire over and over. While there is much truth to that appraisal, we learn that many works occupying a place in the top 40 aren't played that often. Over a 30-year span playing in a major orchestra one encounters a breadth of repertoire impossible to experience in any other way. We not only hear performances but we learn the music through intensive rehearsing. For a composer this exhilarating atmosphere is both inspiring and dangerous. Did I write that or did I hear it in what's-his-names piece a couple of weeks ago? In any event, encountering Vivaldi, Beethoven, Ives & The Modern Jazz Quartet one week, followed by Birtwhistle, Brahms, Ray Charles & Sousa the next will make almost anyone musically multi-lingual.
So the answer to my question regarding the musical language of Shadowboxer is that it is not confined to one arena. Following Joe's travels I elected to set each location in whatever tongue that seemed logical to me. In Max Schemeling's Act 1 aria Max's aggressive orations are delivered in a traditional operatic style but he is accompanied by a swinging jazz band. Similar instances of style blending are heard frequently. Joe was a complex character who experienced the world in many disparate ways. Paraphrasing his life in a musical setting worked best for me by going in more than one musical direction. The jazz musician in me wants every performance to be different. Hence, among other things, the improvised sequences involving Joe with Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. At the same time, my classical persona wants the notes played like one of Joe's bouts; meticulously, though always with an element of surprise.
Program Note by John Chenault
I was born in 1952, the year after Joe Louis retired from boxing. Like most kids in my neighborhood, I grew up worshipping prizefighters among a pantheon of other professional athletes and celebrities. Among the boxing greats, however, the heavyweight champions ranked above all others, and above all the stars of other sports. They were the elite of the sports world, and the toughest men on the planet. I discovered this fact at an early age in front of a small black and white television set. In the fifties and early sixties, a time when there were few television channels, boxing was ubiquitous and often was on in my house more than once a week. But the ritual of watching Friday night fights with my father is what I remember best. Gillette Cavalcade of Sports brought the great fighters of the day (Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Graziano, Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston) right into our living room. It also influenced me in ways I am just beginning to comprehend. Blame it on the power of advertising on a developing mind, but the theme music for the show ("Look Sharp/Stay Sharp March" by Maylon Merrick) triggered a kind of Pavlovian response in me that linked boxing, safety razors and shaving cream in a chain of association that culminated with the sudden olfactory recall of Old Spice, my father's favorite aftershave. Shaving, using aftershave, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, watching boxing—in my early youth I interpreted those activities as among the most salient symbols of masculinity and manhood. And in the world in which I was born, a world circumscribed by "race" and Jim Crow, positive images of "black" manhood loomed large in my nascent consciousness.
For my father and his generation, Joe Louis represented "black" manhood in ways I did not fully understand. In fact, in my youth, Louis rarely crossed my radar. I knew who he was, and I heard my elders speak of him with great affection, but for my generation he was just an old guy who was a legend before our time. Unbeknownst to us, our hero had just arrived on the scene. He was a brash young man from Louisville, Kentucky named Cassius Clay. He had yet to make a name for himself, and when he did he would choose to be called Muhammad Ali.
Flash forward fifty years later and I am researching Louis's life and career, and finding the task challenging and exhilarating. Louis was a man of unparalleled accomplishments, immense appetites, and seemingly multiple personas: there is Joe the knockout artist; Joe the philanthropist; Joe the spendthrift; Joe the patriot; Joe the entrepreneur; Joe the womanizer and lover; Joe the golfer; and the Joe who succumbed to drug addiction and mental illness. So many Joes, so little time. In the end I decided on three Joes to tell the story: a boxer (who is seen but never heard), a young Joe, and Joe as an old man facing his imminent demise. I also decided to set the opera to occur within the final moments of Louis' life, in the fog and confusion of his pain-filled mind, as he succumbs to a fatal heart attack in his Las Vegas home. The idea that we see our life stories unreel before our mind's eye in the final seconds before death inspired this retrospective approach to the narrative. Accordingly, the events depicted in Shadowboxer occur only in the phantasmagoric mental landscape of Louis' faltering consciousness. Initially, as the Shadow of Death looms over Louis, he recalls the early years of his life in vivid details. But as the images tick by and his life force ebbs away the memories become fleeting and chaotic, and his mind swiftly descends into chaos.
The idea to title the opera Shadowboxer emerged from the image of Louis confronting his own mortality in an epic struggle with death. The more I thought about the implications of the title, however, the more I came to appreciate what it suggested as a metaphor for Louis' boxing career and life. Louis emerged as a prizefighter in the 1930s from the shadow of the notorious Jack Johnson. Johnson had roiled the boxing world with his exploits inside and outside the ring as the prototypical bad "nigger" of his generation. His success in the ring and his uncompromising "blackness" caused a backlash in the boxing world that made it impossible for subsequent black fighters to get a shot at earning the heavyweight title. Joe Louis broke the Johnson jinx on heavyweight boxing. His victories in the boxing arena and his carefully cultivated persona in the public arena enabled him to become one of the most beloved sports figures in American history. Yet despite his achievements and fame, he was overshadowed in the 1960s and 70s by the dynamic career and charisma of Muhammad Ali. Although he never faced either of the two great heavyweights in the ring, in some ways Louis fought them regularly in the shadows of his mind and in the arena of public opinion.
Despite all that has been written and said about Louis, we cannot stop thinking about him, talking about him, and even singing about him. Aside from his obvious cultural and historical significance, perhaps we are drawn to him again and again because he has remained an enigma in so many ways. There were days when I came away from the computer punch drunk from the effort of trying to corner him. Those figurative matches with the champ led me to a deeper understanding of British boxer Tommy Farr's comment: "Every time I hear the name Joe Louis my nose starts to bleed." Farr managed to go the distance with Louis. I like to think that I did so too in my own way. In the end, however, no one ever lands a glove on Joe. He remains as elusive a target as he was in his heyday in the ring. Yet he continues to inspire new generations to step into the squared circle of his life to examine, commemorate, and celebrate his complex legacy as a boxer and a man.