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'Approaching Ali' at the Kennedy Center

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative, a new commissioning program for contemporary American opera, presents the world premiere of "Approaching Ali" this week.

Composed by D.J. Sparr, the opera is based on Davis Miller's book, "The Tao of Muhammad Ali." The libretto was created by Miller and Mark Campbell, a veteran librettist whose work has enhanced productions for such organizations as Wolf Trap Opera Company, Virginia Opera, New York Festival of Song and Minnesota Opera.

The chamber orchestra is conducted by Steven Jarvi, the first conductor of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, now the resident conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

"My involvement in the opera goes back to meeting Davis Miller, who lived near me in Richmond, Va.," said Sparr. "Two years ago he told me about his memoir. I liked the idea of combining magic and realism, so when I learned about the American Opera Initiative, I applied for the commission.

If you go
'Approaching Ali'
» Where: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. NW
» When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $30; 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

"We began developing the opera at a workshop with the cast and the artistic director, Francesca Zambello. The characters include an adult Davis Miller, his parents, Muhammad Ali, [Ali's] mother Odessa Clay and Young Davis. After his mother dies, Davis' father plans changes that make him want to leave home, but when he sees Ali, his hero, on television, it helps him overcome the trauma of losing his own mother and being bullied. Years later, the adult Davis was driving past Ali's house in Louisville and stopped to knock on the door. That meeting with Ali and his mother became for him a mythical experience."

Sparr was composer-in residence with the Richmond Symphony when he met Davis, his neighbor. Now he is the young American composer-in residence with the California Symphony, where he was soloist this month on his latest work, "Violet Bond: Concerto-Overture." Numerous works of his have been premiered by orchestras and ensembles throughout the country and he has received important awards.

"I play the electric guitar and my music ranges to pop and new world, but I have serious conservatory training," said Sparr. "The arias I wrote for this opera are very melodic. Right now I'm working on a guitar concerto and a piece for 500 people on a basketball court. I hope the Kennedy Center audience discovers that I'm a composer who can communicate this inspirational story in my own voice. The opera, suitable for all ages, is heavily family-oriented and speaks to the bullying issue."

Bass Soloman Howard sings the role of Muhammad Ali. The D.C. native grew up in a very musical family that boasts his grandfather as the opening act for B.B. King. His his mother and sister were members of a gospel group. He was introduced to classical music his freshman year at Fairfax High School and continued to develop his love of opera at Morgan State University and Manhattan School of Music.

Now in his second season as a member of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, Howard initially auditioned for the chorus, but the artistic director who heard him whisked him past the application process and had him sing for Maestro Domingo. He appeared this season as Il Commendatore in the company's production of "Don Giovanni" and last season as High Priest of Baal in "Nabucco." He debuted earlier with Washington Concert Opera as Leone in Verdi's "Attila" and is fresh off playing Joe in the WNO's production of "Show Boat"

"Being part of the Young Artist Program and having the opportunity to sing wonderful roles like this is a dream," said Howard. "Everyone else in the cast is from outside. This is a challenging role because the opera takes place after Ali's career and post-Parkinson's disease when he is in his 40s and has lost some of the charm and charisma of his younger years, so I have to showcase his voice while making certain the audience is aware that he has some kind of condition.

"Working with Domingo has been a dream. He's a world class conductor and coach. It's amazing to study with him in master classes and one on one. I feel very fortunate to have had these experiences all because of him. ... I want to bring Muhammad Ali to life for the Kennedy Center audience."

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