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In Shadowboxer, the Brown Bomber gets an opera

When Joe Louis took only 124 seconds to knock out Max Schmeling in 1938, it was one of the most historic sports triumphs of the 20th century.

Schmeling, a reluctant representative of Nazi Germany, had defeated Louis two years earlier, and the Reich’s propagandists had proclaimed that result — Louis’s first professional loss — as a demonstration of Aryan supremacy. The rematch was broadcast in dozens of languages. In dispatching Schmeling, Louis became a hero to a world that trembled before the ascendant Nazi war machine, and the first black man to achieve broad acceptance as a symbolic ambassador for the United States.

Leon Major, artistic director of the Maryland Opera Studio, was five years old when his father turned on the radio to hear that fight. It was over in less time than it took Major’s dad, a tailor in the shtetl, to get a glass of tea from the kitchen.

Now 77, Major isn’t quite sure whether he remembers the match firsthand, or if he heard about it later. Memory is funny that way, especially when we’re very young. But Major vividly recalls Louis’s career-ending loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951.

“That incident stayed with me, because it was so devastating to so many people,” Major says. Even Marciano had looked up to Louis — he visited the fallen champ backstage after the fight to apologize for beating him.

Four decades would pass before Major began thinking seriously about making Louis’s life the subject of an opera, but once the notion seized him, it wouldn’t let go, even after numerous composers and a librettists turned the commission down. Some even suggested an opera about Jackie Robinson instead. Continue reading