“Opera is a little closed off to certain demographics and we wanted to make it more accessible to everyone,” says producer-director Luke Leonard, by way of explaining why the world needed an opera about Bum Phillips. But we hear your objection. If that’s the case, why focus on a man known only to an ever-shrinking subset of “everyone”?
Well, for starters, O.A. “Bum” Phillips, was a certifiable legend of Houston sports, and opera has always leaned heavily on those. As such, the show, Bum Phillips: All-American Opera, puts the beloved, one-of-a-kind Houston Oilers head coach center stage, dramatizing everything from Bum’s rural upbringing to his emphasis on sportsmanship to his two postseason runs in the late ’70s.
“Texas is big and Bum is kind of an anomaly [in pro football] because he came in wearing a big cowboy hat and spitting tobacco,” says Leonard, whose opera, with music by Peter Stopschinski and a libretto by Kirk Lynn, comes to the Stafford Centre for a one-night-only engagement on Sept. 24. It is an authorized opera, by the way, if there is such a thing, Phillips having given its authors the go-ahead in 2012, a year before his death. (Bum’s initial response? “I can’t sing a lick.”)
The opera mirrors its subject in a number of ways—it’s loud, unique and an underdog. But for the creative team, it’s also a chance for an ancient art form to reach a different audience. “The opera world is growing right now,” says Stopschinski. “In fact, there is a movement toward new operas today that is unprecedented in the past 75 years or so.”
Still, their effort is far from a gimmick, he says. “We are trying to honor…how an entire big city came together under a team who had a leader as kind, skilled and memorable as Bum Phillips.”
Given the subject matter, you might expect the show’s premiere last year to have taken place in Houston, but that honor went to the La MaMa Theater Club in New York, which is the home of Leonard’s theater company, Monk Parrots, and indeed Leonard himself. Incidentally, the New York Times review (titled “It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Man Spits”) wasn’t very enthusiastic, but then what would some New York type know about Bum?
“Opera is traditionally depressing, so in a way he’s kind of anti-opera too,” notes Leonard, acknowledging that his show has been a hard sell for some. “Where most characters die or kill themselves, Bum’s the opposite. He’s got a little more light.”
Stopschinski’s score, meanwhile, is necessarily pastiche-laden, mixing military marches of the sort Phillips heard while a Marine in WWII with gospel and country-western tunes, soaring Copland-esque moments and, naturally, the Oilers theme song.
“I asked him what kind of music he liked,” Stopschinski says. What kind do you think I like? came Phillips's reply.
True (powder) blue Oilers fans will no doubt be thrilled by the opera’s grandeur and heroics, while opera fans may well cotton to the emotionally powerful score. And if there’s anyone out there who’s both a fan of opera and ’70s football, well, there may be no finer night of theater.
“Both football and opera thrive on drama,” says Stopschinski. “There is something about watching an athlete make incredible athletic plays on the field that's related to the intense physical and artistic performance an opera singer must give.”