Float like a butterfly, sing like a soprano ... how Muhammad Ali's epic life became an opera

Teddy Abrams
The Guardian

Among the many tributes to Muhammad Ali – books, films, documentaries, exhibitions and plays – an immersive orchestral experience might be one of the least expected. But in Louisville, Kentucky, the boxer’s birthplace, the ambitious young maestro who leads the Louisville Orchestra has found his muse.

Dressed in black jeans and T-shirt, with curly hair and black-framed glasses, 30-year-old Teddy Abrams seems unfazed by the challenge of setting the life and times of Louisville’s most famous son to music. His ambitious new work The Greatest: Muhammad Ali will mix music, poetry, narration and dance into what he calls “a 90-minute opera-rap-oratorio mashup”. Abrams has written both the libretto and music.

Abrams is confident in his abilities, like Ali, though without the swagger. He’s a composer, a skilful jazz pianist and a clarinetist, and he has just begun his fourth year as music director of the Louisville Orchestra, a storied ensemble that has been reinvigorated since his arrival. This is his grandest project yet, and Abrams knows the stakes are high. “I wanted Ali’s life story to be the gateway to the bigger picture, which was his relationship to the most important things of the time: race, war and spirituality. He somehow found himself at the centre of everything in an authentic way,” he tells me.

When he arrived in Louisville, Abrams started dreaming of writing a major work along the lines of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. He needed a great American subject, and Ali fit the bill. “It’s pretty wild when you consider that arguably the most famous person of the 20th century came from this town,” he says.

Ali died on 3 June, 2016. Abrams met the moment with an instinctive civic gesture that became the starting point for his composition. He headed to the Muhammad Ali Center – a not-for-profit museum dedicated to preserving the boxer’s legacy – where he set up his keyboard and, joined by some musician friends, played for the crowd. Their set list included a hip-hop version of What a Wonderful World, a bluesy I’d Rather Go Blind, and a group singalong of Amazing Grace. The area became a makeshift shrine as visitors poured in from around the world to pay tribute to the legend – local boy Cassius Clay who became global icon Muhammad Ali. “It hit me then,” says Abrams, “just how much this man’s life affected everybody.”
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