Spotlight on BOUNCE: The Basketball Opera

By Rebecca Gross
Basketball hoop
Basketball hoop by flickr user Chilli Head
Even though it’s been more than a decade, Grethe Barrett Holby vividly recalls reading Walter Dean Myers with her son. Myers, an award-winning, middle-grade author known for his gritty urban realism, often wrote about basketball, including in his novels Hoops and Slam. “I was blown away by the fact that this wasn't just about basketball, it was about life and life lessons,” said Holby. “I immediately started seeing this as an opera piece.” This was how the vision originated for BOUNCE: The Basketball Opera. With a libretto by Charles R. Smith, Jr., music by Glen Roven, Tomas Donker, and Ansolo, and direction by Holby, BOUNCE follows the rise and fall of a high school basketball star, weaving in themes of gun violence and betrayal. Last weekend, BOUNCE completed a workshop in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, with NEA support. Of course, BOUNCE will not be your everyday Puccini. The piece is a production of Ardea Arts, which creates family-friendly operas for “a wider American, contemporary palate,” said Holby, who serves as the organization’s executive and artistic director. Although operas about astronauts, animals, and basketball sounds nothing short of novel, Holby noted that “opera was made to be a popular art form. People in Italy sang opera like people in the 50s and 60s sang songs from musicals.” With a score that mixes hip-hop and gospel with arias, Holby hopes BOUNCE will appeal to both veteran opera lovers and newer, younger audiences who might not have ever experienced a live theater event before. To reach this untapped audience, BOUNCE will be performed on basketball courts in communities throughout the country, and will cast members of the community alongside professional actors. Last weekend’s workshop was held at Paerdegat Park in East Flatbush, and cast members included youth from local institutions such as Brooklyn High School of the Arts and Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes (G-MACC). G-MACC, which is based in East Flatbush, works with youth whose communities have high rates of gun violence, gang activity, and drug use—struggles that mirror those found in BOUNCE. Holby described working with area youth as “an amazing opportunity and joy and challenge.” The challenge, she said, has been to convince kids to get out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in an unfamiliar environment of rehearsals and performance. But at the same time, she said the positive impact has also already been obvious for certain participants. “I’ve gotten texts from a principal saying, ‘You changed these kids' lives,’” said Holby. “And we're just doing what we do.”