‘Approaching Ali’: Soloman Howard’s Challenge

When “Approaching Ali,” the one-hour opera having its world premiere at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Saturday and Sunday, created under the auspices of the Washington National Opera’s new commissioning program for contemporary American opera, there’ll be a little pressure on everybody involved.

That would include WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello, composer D.J. Sparr, and librettist Mark Campbell and Davis Miller, as well as performers bass Soloman Howard, Aundie Marie Moore, baritone, young boy soprano Ethan McKelvain, Tim Augustin and Catherine Martin.

The opera is the story of a young boy in North Carolina in the early 1960s who overcomes the loss of his mother and the trauma of being bullied when he sees champion boxer Muhammad Ali on television. More than 20 years later as a middle-aged writer, he seeks out his boyhood hero in person at the home of Ali’s mother in Louisville.

The work will feature a 10-piece chamber orchestra, conducted by former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Steven Jarvi.

But the Washington-raised Howard—who doubled as Joe in the critical and popular WNO production of

“Showboat”—has a particular challenge in performing, acting and singing the role of Ali. “As an African American who knows a little about struggling, I’ve always seen Muhammad Ali as a personal inspiration for me,” he said during a telephone interview. “He taught us what it’s like to fight, not just in the ring, but outside it, standing up for your personal beliefs and not backing down, no matter what the cost.

“When I was in high school [in Suitland, Md.], in an atmosphere of peers that couldn’t quite see an African American singer being interested in classical music, let alone opera, it sometimes got difficult,” he said in a deep, very deep bass voice that might give people pause about not showing respect. “People would say, why aren’t you singing gospel or blues or some such, or Barry White. But I was fortunate—I played football, too. So, I didn’t get that much trouble. I was fortunate to have people, teachers, mentors, who helped me fulfill my talent and my gift.”

“I grew up in D.C., and we had difficult times, but my parents kept things together,” Howard said. “I learned about strength from my mother Nellene Dickerson and my father Isaac Howard. You don’t always have the advantages other people did.”

As for the his part in the opera, it “was quite a challenge,” Howard said. “I believe in everything I do in opera that you have to learn to be the character, not just sing it correctly and with Ali, that was a serious responsibility and challenge for me. You have to do the man justice, you have to find him.

The new opera initiative “gives young singers, young artists a chance to do difficult and challenging work,” he said. “And this opera, we can hope, will broaden the audience. It’s a thoroughly American subject that ought to resonate for all Americans. It certainly did for me. The work spoke to me.”

The 32-year-old singer now is a rising part of the WNO, through its important Domingo—Cafritz Young Artist program.

The opera is based on Davis Miller’s book, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali.” His first published story, “My Dinner with Ali,” had the late David Halberstam praising it as one of the 20 best pieces of sports writing of the 20th century.

“Approaching Ali” will be performed at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Saturday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 9, at 2 p.m.

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