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Saturday, March 31, 2018

New Opera to Tell the LeBron James Story

Der Klevelandkavalier planned for 2022.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Three faces of the King: a new opera will tell the story of LeBron James in chorus and song.
All images of LeBron James © The National Basketball Association, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat.
No NBA players were approached or participated in this story, which is for parody purposes only. 
"It's about time that there was a German opera about a real American hero." That's the rationale, (if we need one) behind the new opera Der Klevelandkavalier, which premieres in a special concert version at Severance Hall in Cleveland Ohio on Feb. 30, 2022. The new opera is a co-production with the New World Symphony of Miami. It tells the story of NBA great LeBron James, his rise to fame, his harrowing journey into the depths of Miami, Florida, his friendship and personal struggles with Dwayne Wade, and his triumphant return to Cleveland, Ohio to win a championship for that lakeside city.

The new work is a collaboration between opera composer, producer and rock drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police) and former NBA star Detlef Schrempf. Since his touring days, Mr. Copeland has written a number of operas, including The Cask of Amontillado and the acclaimed The Island of Morel. Mr. Schrempf wrote the libretto, which is meant to be sung in German. "German is the ideal language for a basketball opera," Mr. Schrempf said. "And LeBron's journey will be all the more compelling if the audience has to follow projected titles as well as the bouncing ball." The work makes use of large chorus, two countertenors, a baritone and a new Insta-Stilt technology initially developed for Wagner tenor Wolfgang Schmidt in the 1997 Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.

Der Klevelandkavalier tells the LeBron story over three acts. It opens with a scene at the NBA Draft, where Mr. James was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. A tender flashback to his Akron childhood makes use of harpsichord and bicycle horn. It then segues rapidly into his rise to fame, using a combination of bounced, globular percussion, funky hip hop beats and solo parts for tenor, bass and mixed chorus. The first act chronicles the Rise of King James, concentrating on his rivalry and friendship with fellow draftees Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It ends at the 2004 All-Star Game with a a spectacular dunk sequence using trampolines, an idea borrowed from the old SlamBall League.

"The second act," Mr. Copeland said, "wasn't easy. It is meant to mirror the descent of Orpheus into Hades." It opens with the Lamentations of the People of the Cuyahoga, as James packs his bags and flies south to sunny, funny Miami. The Miami scenes, serving as an able stand-in for Hades, feature a ballet of strapping young beach boys and hints of techno and salsa in the orchestration. "I must admit," Mr. Copeland said "that writing a love duet for timbales, Heckelphone and Theremin was something of a challenge, but I did my best."

The Schrempf libretto is the first for the former Indiana Pacers player, who has dabbled in television acting (Parks and Recreation) but is new to the heady world of opera. "I have to admit it wasn't easy," the new librettist said while relaxing in the hot tub at his palatial house outside Indianapolis. "Reggie Miller and I used to talk opera back when we played for Indiana, but it was always over our heads. I tried to draw equally from my two biggest inspirations: the librettos of Salvatore Cammarano and the hip-hop stylings of Robert van Winkle."

Mr. James was unavailable for comment, as he was getting a tattoo of the score on his left forearm at press time.

In the third act, James, now crowned King of Cleveland, returns to lead a battle crusade against that city's enemies. There is a lot of choral writing and another elaborate hardwood ballet. "It wasn't easy," countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo says. He will sing the role of LeBron wearing a pair of custom stilt shoes originally developed for a Bayreuth production of Wagner's Das Rheingold. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to dunk in these things?" Bass Erik Halfvorson takes n the challenging role of Stephon Curry and is reportedly working on his three-pointer in preparation for the show.

If Der Klevelandkavalier is a hit, it may be the first in a cycle of new works that bring the magic of the NBA onto the operatic stage. "There's three more installments," Schrempf enthuses. "There's Der Spud und die Muggsy, a comedy about two height-challenged players, The River of Jordan chronicling Michael Jordan's baseball career and quest to buy the Charlotte Bobcats (he is to be played by Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan) and The Cuban Sandwich. That last stars Mark Cuban and is the longest opera in the series. It may have to be split into two nights, and should premiere in Dallas in 2024. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.