Sparring Partner 

Richmond composer D.J. Sparr translates the life of Muhammad Ali into music.

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Sunday afternoon tea is being poured in the upstairs lobby of the Jefferson Hotel. Decaffeinated classical music plays through the speakers. Downstairs, Richmond composer D.J. Sparr can't get a cup of coffee. He rings a bell and the sound echoes against the bar mirror. He has the slightly rumpled look of a piece of paper that's been folded in a jacket pocket and smoothed out on an airplane tray.

The past week was a busy one. His first opera, "Approaching Ali," was in rehearsal at the Kennedy Center in Washington, so he spent the week in the capital, with another week to go. "I asked to come home for the weekend, so they're flying me back tomorrow morning," Sparr says. He's given up on the coffee and is sitting slantwise on his chair in the empty bar. "Opera people have lots of money," he says.

The 37-year-old is having a busy year. His first album comes out this fall from Centaur Records. He was selected for a residency at the prestigious Yaddo artists' colony, and his status as young American composer in residence at the California Symphony was extended into its third year. An active electric guitarist, he also performs solo and with orchestras.

Two years ago, Sparr and his wife, Kimberly, a violist, sublet their house for the summer to Davis Miller, author of the memoir "The Tao of Muhammad Ali." The book describes the effect the boxer had on Miller's troubled childhood and their friendship as adults.

Later, when Sparr read a news release from Washington National Opera announcing its American Opera Initiative project to commission American-themed works by young composers, he thought of Miller's book and emailed the artistic director, asking if it was interested. He got the commission.

"D. J. is a good self-promoter, the way all artists should be," says Michael Heaston, program director of the American Opera Initiative. "He's got excellent credentials. He more than met our expectations."

For Sparr, a typical day of composing involves three work sessions of two to four hours each, punctuated by walks with the dogs and just enough housework to keep Kimberly satisfied. ("I've figured out the small things that give the biggest payoff," he says, grinning.)

He uses a timer to keep himself strictly on task for 45-minute chunks. Each day, he has a goal of how much music he'll complete, measured in seconds.

"Four months seems like a long time to write an hour-long opera, but it's not," he says. "Writing a minute of music a day is a lot."

To compose "Approaching Ali," Sparr watched all the videos he could find of boxer Muhammad Ali, internalizing the cadence of his voice. He read about Ali's religious practices. He listened to the sound of boxers practicing on the speed bag and worked with scales and harmonies from India.

The opera's libretto was written by Miller and Mark Campbell, one of the most prolific librettists in the United States. The work for six singers and 10-piece orchestra was fully staged with set, lighting and choreography. The performances on June 8 and 9 were reviewed: The Baltimore Sun called his score "imaginative" and "nimble," while the New York Times and Washington Post were distinctly lukewarm in their reception, particularly of elements influenced by Eastern melodic and rhythmic practices.

Sparr isn't a New York darling or avant-garde hero. He has no notoriety or megahits. But compared with five or six years ago, he definitely has more work. On the heels of the opera, Sparr has another commission due, a piece for the piccolo player of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a choir of flutes. Then he wants to start on a 25-minute orchestral work for the California Symphony.

"The projects have a bigger scope," he says. "There are more people waiting on the other side. The deadlines are firmer."

Despite his increasingly busy life — who flies to Washington from Richmond, after all? — Sparr is slowing his music down. "I've been trying to be influenced by the slower pacing of Eastern music," he says.

Sparr will spend the next few months composing in Colorado, where Kimberly is the assistant principal violist of the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra every summer. In the Rocky Mountains, there's time for slow moments.

"I go to Lookout Gulch and think about music," he says. S

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