Outside the Ring–the Max Schmeling Joe Louis rivalry that defined two nations and the friendship that defined two men is a new full length opera in a series called “Tales of Transcendence” being developed by Bellissima Opera and produced by Working In Concert. The librettist is Christine Steyer and the composer is David Shenton.

​We are also seeking partnerships with other opera companies to co-produce Outside the Ring, and donors to prepare the first workshops in 2024.

Outside the Ring: a new opera from Bellissima Opera's Tales of Transcendence.
“The Crowd Makes You Catch Your Breath” performed by Concordia University Kapella Choir, Charles Brown, conductor

Putting Outside the Ring ​in Historical Context

 The story of Max Schmeling and Joe Louis is immense. During any period one looks, whether it be their early years, the 1936 and 1938 fights, their efforts in WWII or the many decades following, their lives were truly remarkable. 

Athletes by choice, celebrities by chance and political tools by circumstance, both men were thrust into the geo-political arena both domestically and internationally on an unprecedented scale. In the build-up to both the 1936 and 1938 fights, everyone had a vested interest in their outcomes; some interests were personal, some ideological, some financial and some racial. Sometimes these interests shifted from one fight to the next.

However, perhaps the most remarkable part of their story may have been what occurred outside the ring in 1954 when Schmeling, whose conscience demanded he apologize for things said and done in his name by the Nazi Party, initiated a friendship with Louis.

What would become a 27-year friendship was undoubtedly formed by the mutual love of the sport, but also and more importantly, the fact that both men were the inadvertent representatives of something so much bigger than themselves. As international personalities and as propaganda tools of their respective countries, they both had to learn to navigate the tricky path of celebrity and accept the monumental consequences of successes and failures. 

Read more on Wikipedia about the fight: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling

Outside the Ring – Synopsis of Act 1 © 2024 Christine Steyer

Pre-overture: 1954, Chicago, South Side. Curtain down. Spotlight comes up on a man in silhouette as he walks across the stage. He approaches a doorway. After a pause, he rings the doorbell. The sound of the bell turns into that of the ringside bell beginning the Overture.

ACT I: June 18, 1936, the evening of Fight 1 and a week later

Scene 1: Alternating between Yankee Stadium, NY and the Goebbels residence, Berlin

As the overture nears its conclusion, the music suddenly becomes a soft tremolo as Clem McCarthy, the American Sports Announcer, gives preshow details of the fight about to get underway. The announcer finishes and the overture concludes. 

The curtain goes up to reveal Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, and their trainers engaged in pre-fight preparation as the Chorus of spectators comment on the atmosphere of the evening “The Crowd Makes You Catch Your Breath”.

The fight begins, McCarthy gives a blow by blow and it is clear that Louis is winning. Action cuts to the Joseph Goebbels residence in Berlin. Schmeling’s wife, Anny Ondra, Goebbels, his wife Magda, and their Housekeeper listen to the radio broadcast by Arno Hellmis, the German Sports Announcer. The tide turns as Schmeling knocks down Louis in Round 4. Goebbels is elated while Anny is a nervous wreck. 

Action cuts back to Yankee Stadium. As the crowd enjoys a good fight, Louis’ mother, Lillie has the opposite perspective – reacting as a mother watching her son get beaten “He’s Killing My Boy”. In hysterics, she is taken away. In Round 7 Louis is dominant again.

In Berlin, Anny, alone for a moment confesses her regret for not accompanying Schmeling to America and her discomfort at being in the company of the Nazi party this evening “Soaring Wings”. To everyone’s surprise the tables turn again as Schmeling knocks out Louis in Round 12. Hellmis shouts for joy. The Goebbels family celebrates “Lieb’ America”. The photographer sets up a propaganda photo with Anny and Goebbels in front of the radio.

Scene 2: Harlem, an hour later

Children reenact the fight “I Ain’t Gonna Be Louis”. A young boy who was made to be “Louis” in the re-enactment buries his head in shame. Isolating himself from the press, an injured Louis arrives at Lucille Armistead’s place to recover. Seeing the sad boy, Louis tries to comfort him. Recognizing Louis, the boy insults him and runs off with the other children. 

In the company of his trainer, Jack Blackburn, the two men discuss the challenges of keeping up a fake public persona to appease the white public. Blackburn sings “I Sure Took a Chance on You”. After Blackburn nods off, Louis opens up about losing a fight for the first time and letting down his people “Where Can I Be Where I Can Just Be Me?”.

Scene 3: Goebbels residence in Berlin, a week later

Schmeling and Anny arrive at a party thrown by GoebbelsGerman Reporters ask Schmeling about his pre-fight confidence to beat Louis. Schmeling explains “I See Something” that he had seen a flaw in Louis’ strategy, however, the reporters attempt to twist his words to make it appear that he had seen a flaw in Louis’ race.

Magda pulls Anny aside and asks her if she has given any thought as to how she can be of service to Germany “To Serve is the Highest Purpose”. Anny is unclear with the question and talks about her upcoming movie schedule. 

In a private moment in Goebbles’ office, Schmeling and Anny express uneasiness at the events they are increasingly becoming a part of “The Germany That Brought Us Goethe”.

Goebbels enters and expounds the virtues of the paintings of Titian “Such Clarity of Purpose”. Goebbels shows Schmeling and Anny a model of the upcoming Berlin Olympic Stadium. It becomes clear that he will need Schmeling to attend various promotional events in order to put Germany in a favorable light with the international community. Ludwig Haymann enters and motions for Schmeling to look at some documents he has prepared. Goebbels then hands Schmeling a pen.

Curtain. End of Act 1

(Act 2 and Epilogue are under development.)

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