Medical librarian pens opera about boxing legend Joe Louis
Not everyone would see a connection between opera and boxing, but University of Louisville medical librarian John Chenault does. The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and the University of Maryland School of Music commissioned Chenault and his long-time collaborator Frank Proto to write an opera on the life of legendary boxer Joe Louis. It will premier April 17, 2010 at the Maryland Opera Studio.
“This project has always been a vision of the director, Leon Major,” Chenault said. “It’s a fantastic project. It’s the first opera I’ve done. It’s been very challenging.”
The team started work on “Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis” in January 2008.
Chenault, who grew up during Muhammad Ali’s boxing reign, said he read books and watched fight films and documentaries to learn more about Louis.
“I’ve always been a boxing fan. As I researched Louis’ life I began to see what an immense figure he was in sports and American culture,” Chenault said. “He changed the face of boxing and of black America. He was one of the most important and compelling figures of the 20th Century.”
Louis was heavyweight boxing champion from 1937–1949. He boxed in 27 championship fights, defending the title in 25. He became perhaps the first African American to become a national hero in the United States. In 1952, he also helped break the Professional Golf Association’s color barrier.
He retired from professional boxing in 1951.
As Louis grew older his income dwindled, and the IRS pursued him for failing to pay back taxes. He made a modest living during his final years working as a “greeter” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
Chenault said the opera spans from Louis’ first professional fight to the end of his life in 1981.
Three different performers will portray Louis as an elderly man in a wheelchair, a young Louis, and a boxer. The cast will be a mix of University of Maryland opera students and professional opera singers.
Chenault will continue to work on “Shadowboxer” over the months before its premiere.
Last February, a “reading” of the opera’s first act was performed before an audience at the University of Maryland. The event helped Chenault and Proto make a few revisions to the libretto and music.
Chenault noted that he’s pleased with the composition so far.
“Boxing is a perfect subject for an opera,” he said, “because it brings together something so physical and intense as boxing with something so intense and emotional as opera.”
Although he has composed theatrical work, this project is different from any he has done before.
“I have composed musical dramas that combined music, singing, and spoken word, but opera is all song,” Chenault said.
He and Proto were first commissioned together in 1993 to create an orchestral composition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The piece, “Ghost in Machine: an American Music Drama for Voice, Narrator and Orchestra,” premiered in April 1995 and featured vocalist Cleo Laine and the late actor Paul Winfield.
They have also composed for the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Their work has been performed throughout the United States, and in Canada and Europe.
Chenault, who also teaches Pan-African studies distance learning courses at UofL, has long participated in theater arts. His theatrical training began at the New Theater/Free Theater of Cincinnati in 1967, where he worked on productions as a stage hand, actor, playwright and producer. One of his playwriting credits, “Young Men Grow Older,” was nominated for an Emmy Award for Community Television and received the National Conference of Christian and Jews Brotherhood Award.
He also has written two poetry books, “Blue Blackness” and “The Invisible Man Returns.”