Arts & Culture

Soloman Howard talks about portraying Muhammad Ali for NC Opera

Muhammad Ali and Davis Miller, left, in 1992. The opera “Approaching Ali,” is about the relationship that Miller developed with Ali.
Muhammad Ali and Davis Miller, left, in 1992. The opera “Approaching Ali,” is about the relationship that Miller developed with Ali. COURTESY OF DAVIS MILLER

Muhammad Ali and the operatic stage might seem mutually exclusive entities, but bass Soloman Howard proves the two can go together when he portrays the boxing champ and humanitarian in “Approaching Ali.”

For his performances in the opera’s 2013 premiere at Washington’s Kennedy Center, Howard garnered strong reviews for his powerful voice and convincing acting. This week he repeats the role for N.C. Opera’s own production in Durham and Raleigh.

“The D.C. performances engaged people in the community who typically don’t go to opera and got them excited about what opera can be,” said Eric Mitchko, N.C. Opera’s general director. “We want that to happen here too.” The company will have two students-only performances in addition to the public ones.

American composer D. J. Sparr’s 50-minute one-act is based on the 1997 book, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali,” by N.C. native Davis Miller. In it, the author meets his idol and later becomes friends with him, a connection that greatly influenced Miller’s development as an athlete and writer.

Howard, who sang Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” a year ago for N.C. Opera and recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the king in Verdi’s “Aida,” also idolized Ali as a young boy. In a recent phone conversation, Howard spoke about singing the part, Ali’s influence on his life and his advice to young people about following their talents.

Q How did you prepare for playing Ali, physically and mentally?

A I didn’t have to do anything extra physically because, as a former athlete, I always stay in shape. I grew up watching clips of Ali, because my uncle was a boxing sparring partner at a gym and watched videos of Ali’s techniques. I did seek out videos of Ali in later life to see the effects of his Parkinson’s disease.

Q Do you find it intimidating to portray a living celebrity?

A No. I can’t let myself be intimidated because it would get in the way of giving the best that I can. It’s something I’m really honored to do. Also, Ali fits right into opera because everything he did was larger than life and he was a performer.

Q What do you like about this piece and what does it say to the audience?

A It’s an intimate opera with a small cast. Some of the most beautiful music is for Ali’s mother, who invites the Miller character in for dinner. The opera shows family bonds in a good light – there’s no real tragedy in it like there often is in traditional opera. I think the realistic portrayal of Ali’s opposition to racial and religious discrimination can help people understand his life-changing decisions better.

Q What differences are there in singing the role of Ali and more traditional operatic roles?

A The biggest difference is that I created the part of Ali. D. J. crafted the role around the capabilities of my voice and I was able to help him by saying what worked and what didn’t. Still, I have to be careful to get the correct pitch and rhythm, as well as time and tempo changes, all of which are more prominent in such contemporary pieces.

Q What would you say to people who don’t think they want to see an opera?

A I’d recommend “Approaching Ali” to just about anyone. It’s in English and it’s very theatrical in its sets, costumes and staging. It’s not very long and it’s got familiar subject matter. Think of it as a live movie with singing.

Q What do you tell students and young people about pursuing their talents, as you have?

A I tell them to figure out what they are supposed to contribute to society and be diligent and train in whatever that is. Don’t let people discourage you or take that away. My 12-year-old daughter is a tuba player in a youth orchestra, but she wants to be an architect. I’ve told her that she still should continue to develop her natural musical talent because it’s a gift.