Put some bounce in your opera (or opera in your bounce) with ‘Bounce: The Basketball Opera’

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By William McCann
Special to KyForward

Balls float, players dunk, music soars, and the myth of Icarus’s fall into the sea is retold in a fresh new way in Bounce: The Basketball Opera.

Opening on November 10 at 7 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church — just blocks from Rupp Arena — Bounce will introduce basketball fans to opera and maybe even some opera fans to the joys of basketball.

Seated on bleachers around the basketball court in the church’s recreation center, surrounded by scoreboards, lockers, basketball goals, and admonitions to “Exercise Your Faith,” perhaps the last thing one expects to find in a church gym is an opera.

But indeed one does.

Conceived by opera director Grethe Barrett Holby of New York, who specializes in the development of new operas, Bounce, based in her son’s love of basketball, is a New York-Kentucky blend.

Phillip Gay, a singer and actor, is down from New York to sing the leading role of Isaac ‘Ike the Flight’ Harris. Even in rehearsal, the power of Gay’s voice and his comfort in front of an audience is evident. Yet Gray is not a basketball player.

“He did not play basketball before August,” Basketball Choreographer and Community Outreach Coordinator Marcus Barksdale explained. “We started with him as with a child.”

He took to basketball as it is hoped local basketball fans will take to opera.

Barksdale and other basketball players are largely from the Bluegrass, including Dante Stewart who played at Lafayette, and Ryan Brightwell, a graduate of Henry Clay. Choreographing the players so that the basketball “flows smoothly” is Barksdale’s job. He grew up playing basketball, first at Lexington’s Tates Creek High School, then at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Most recently he played professionally in Germany for S. Oliver Wurzburg. Indeed it is the basketball players who make the basketball into a seamless ballet, instead of the crushing, bashing, often bruising game fans see and expect a few blocks west of the church at Rupp Arena.

Marcellus Barksdale, Basketball Choreographer and Community Outreach Coordinator

Bounce is premiering in Lexington because of the vision, encouragement and support of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre and its dynamic head, Dr. Everett McCorvey who is the Bounce’s Executive Producer and Music Director.

Indeed the cast is comprised of a great many UK Opera students, including Blake Denson who plays second lead TJ ‘The Future’ King and former Miss Kentucky Clark Davis who plays “Daphne Woods,” Flight’s love interest after his fall from grace in basketball and Alicia Helm McCorvey as “Mrs. Harris.”

Flight Harris becomes the Spartan’s latest star after a five-inch summer growth spurt allows him to develop the ability to score 40, even 48 points in a single game. Those stats make him a star on the team and a hit with the girls. And then, like Icarus, Flight falls and loses it all. After which, of course, in true-life fashion, Ike Harris must win another girl’s favor and help the Spartans win the big game.

Grethe Barrett Holby described the opera’s rehearsal experience as being “a wonderful mix of cultures — opera and basketball.”

Of Dr. McCorvey she said, “To find someone like Dr. McCorvey, willing to take a chance on something like this is amazing. But this is a small town that ‘gets’ basketball, and he’s probably the only person who could do this. Having access to venues and the University has made this all possible.”

Vocal warm ups

The rehearsal began on the church’s recreation center stage. Tedrin Blair Lindsey — UK faculty member and Assistant Musical Director, played keyboards with Blake Denson on drums as the cast practiced the opening number, “Bounce.”

“Bounce. This game is filled with heart“. Bounce. This game is filled with passion.”

Later, as other singers were rehearsing other songs, it was possible to meet actors associated with the show, like brothers Seth and Justin Ibarrondo of New York. Seth plays “Poet,” who is the opera’s narrator; in spoken word, rap, rhyme, and musical line, he helps tell the story of Bounce. Aside from being Poet, Seth is better known as Atlantic Records’s rap and hip hop artist Madison Price, who said, “My part is hip hop based so it wasn’t difficult to blend it in. This has been a great experience,” he continued, “to see the growth of the show from what it was until now — it’s a big jump.”

Asked about his basketball experience, Ibarrondo said, “I’ve always done music, since I was about eight; I played sports like lots of kids.”

Justin Ibarrondo, who plays the role of a Policeman #1 and is Seth’s manager, is an actor who has recently been on Bluebloods (CBS), Power (Stars) and in Gypsy (with Naomi Watts on Netflix).

Blake Denson, “TJ ‘The Future’ King” and rehearsal drummer, student UK Opera Theatre

When the run-through portion of rehearsal began, it did so as any basketball team warm-ups do — layups, bounce passes, and shortened versions of the exercises Kentucky players have experienced since Adolph Rupp introduced basketball success to the area. But meanwhile actors and singers were also doing stretches and vocal warmups.

“Coach David Ellis” (Ben Boutwell) ran his players through “plays” and “suicides” (that were in slow motion and anything but the suicides of non-operatic practices). But clearly, this is real basketball, as shots made from “behind the arc” distances and high flying dunks attested. Yet the basketball has the fluidity of dance even as the singers displayed some of the high notes of opera.

Incidentally, the world premiere is in Lexington because, when he heard about the show, even before he read the script or saw the libretto, Dr. McCorvey said, “Basketball? An opera about basketball? Why, we have to do it in the mecca of college basketball, the University of Kentucky!”

And so it has come to be.

Bounce: The Basketball Opera runs November 10 -12th at Calvary Baptist Church’s Recreation Center, 150 E.High Street, Lexington. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m Friday and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sunday.. Admission is $9 for students and $18 for general admission, service fees may also apply.

Executive Producer and Musical Director: Dr. Everett McCorvey
Concept and Direction: Grethe Barrett Holby
Book and Lyrics: Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Lead Composer: Glen Roven
Additional Lyrics: Frank X. Walker and Seth Ibarrondo

Starring:
Phillip Gay
Blake Denson
Seth Ibarrondo
Clark Davis
Alicia Helm McCorvey

Local celebrities:
Matt Jones (Game Announcer)
Jennifer Nime (Reporter)
Anthany Beatty (Police Officer #2)

Bill McCann, Jr. is a playwright, poet, and teacher. A member of the Dramatists Guild of America, he is the editor of the Kentucky Theatre Yearbook, 2017. He lives near Corinth in Harrison County.

Jeanine Grant Lister, photographer, is the editor of “Snapdragon: A Journal of Creativity.” She lives near Corinth in Harrison County.

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