Asheville Lyric Opera stages Muhammad Ali production

DINNER OF CHAMPIONS: In 1988, Muhammad Ali, right, invited writer Davis Miller, left, to dinner. Miller's life was forever changed, and the experience led to books inspired by the boxer, as well as a modern opera. Photo courtesy of Davis MIller

In 1988, when author Davis Miller first met Muhammad Ali, the media had mostly forgotten about the former heavyweight boxing champion. Reporters depicted him as an invalid who could barely speak anymore, but Miller’s encounter with him painted a picture of Ali not as a young champion and not as a brain-dead has-been, but as a man who would invite a total stranger in for dinner and make him a part of the family.

Miller’s subsequent story, “My Dinner With Ali,” has recently been turned into Approaching Ali, an autobiographical one-act opera about a man going through a midlife crisis who has a transcendent experience after visiting his aging childhood idol. Asheville Lyric Opera will perform its production of the modern opera as part of its fall fundraiser, held at Harry’s on the Hill on Thursday, Oct. 13. The event includes a lecture and Q&A with Miller.

“I knew in that moment my life was being changed,” says Miller, recalling the experience that sparked Approaching Ali. He and the former boxer, who passed away in June, became longtime friends. “My Dinner With Ali” was picked up by multiple publications, and nominated by Sport magazine for the National Magazine Award in 1990. Miller’s subsequent books about the heavyweight champion, The Tao of Ali and Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, are considered the best records of the fighter’s life after leaving the ring. Miller, who currently lives in Black Mountain, has become a successful sports author and has just sold the movie rights to Approaching Ali. “My Dinner With Ali” is the first story in the book.

The idea to adapt “My Dinner With Ali” into an opera came to Miller in 2012 when he met classical composer D.J. Sparr. Miller was subletting a house from Sparr in Richmond, Va., while the composer and his wife were traveling for the summer. Davis gave Sparr a copy of The Tao of Ali and told him that he wanted to create a musical piece similar to Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait or Joseph Schwantner’s tribute to Martin Luther King, New Morning for the World.

“It was a weird conversation to be having with a person I’d just met for the first time,” says Sparr. “But I read [The Tao of Ali] that summer, and I thought it was really wonderful, and when I started talking to the Washington Opera, it was the first idea I presented to them.”

The idea was a hit, and with some help from internationally renowned librettist Mark Campbell, Miller and Sparr soon created their first modern opera and had the ear of a major opera company.

The premiere of Approaching Ali sold out two nights at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., followed by a well-reviewed full production at the North Carolina Opera in Raleigh. Now it comes to Asheville, where ALO director David Starkey has been working with Miller to prepare a version of the production that can be staged in venues that are not as well equipped as opera houses.

“This is not a typical opera,” says Starkey. “This could be something that was presented at a university, a museum, a community center. … I know that there are many black cultural centers around the country that might be interested in this, and Davis has been getting requests from book fairs to do some sort of expanded musical presentation, so I introduced the concept of a page-to-stage production.”

Starkey’s idea was to strip away everything about the play that wasn’t vital to the story and build up from there. The original version has six singers and a full orchestra. The ALO production is trimmed down to three singers and one piano.

“The crux of the story is all about the relationship between Davis and Ali,” says Starkey. “We’re emphasizing those two characters and putting a piano around it to accompany them, and building it up, layer by layer, from there. We believe that the greater draw for the public is really the story of who Muhammad Ali was the day Davis met him. That’s the window.”

Ali and Davis will be played by Carl DuPont and Ted Federle, respectively. For the local performance, they will be joined by a third voice — Ali’s mother, Odessa Clay — sung by Lori Hicks. Music will be performed by pianist Gregory Thompson.

“Ali was able to rise above himself and take a nurturing and abiding interest in others,” says Miller. “People felt transformed in the moment by meeting Ali, and I think some of that comes through in the opera. It’s what we’re trying to get to.”

WHAT: Approaching Ali performed during Asheville Lyric Opera’s fall fundraiser
WHERE: Harry’s on the Hill, 819 Patton Ave. ashevillelyric.org
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 13, 5:30-7 p.m. $20 donation

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