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From Field to Stage: Alumnus Luke Leonard and "Bum Phillips All-American Opera"

One of the principles in the creation of new work is a combination of the old and the new: finding iconic stories and telling them in unique and exciting ways. Luke Leonard, 2010 graduate of the M.F.A. in directing program, takes this to heart with his new project, Bum Phillips All-American Opera.

“I was interested in doing a project about happiness, or capturing a moment,” says Leonard. “The name Bum Phillips came to mind and I was instantly filled with nostalgia.” Leonard took inspiration from the 2010 autobiography Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian to bring the ambitious project to life. “After I read it, I knew that I wanted to make a new work based on his life. It fit perfectly with the ideas that I was interested in exploring.” The opera showcases Bum Phillips’s growth from his small town childhood and experience as a soldier in World War II, to his football triumphs and return to life in rural Texas.

Three people smiling for the camera; cowboy hats behind them
L to R: Debbie Phillips, Luke Leonard, and Bum Phillips

Leonard is no stranger to producing opera. As a student at the Department of Theatre and Dance he directed The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, an inventive blend of opera and theatre inspired by the Ambrose Bierce short story of the same name. If the idea of a fully-staged opera inspired by the buzz-cutted, cowboy-hat-clad, tobacco-chewing 1970s coach of the Houston Oilers seems strange, Leonard has a simple explanation. “It really doesn’t seem that odd to me,” he says. “Football is epic. Opera is epic.”

“Epic” certainly describes Phillips’s life. The father of Houston Texans’ defensive coordinator and former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, O.A. “Bum” Phillips is known for his colorful aphorisms and down-to-earth relationship with his players. His success as a coach resulted in a devoted fandom dubbed “Luv Ya Blue,” and his unceremonious termination left a hole in the franchise. After a trip to the 90-year-old’s ranch in Goliad, Texas, Leonard received the former coach’s blessing and got to work bringing his life to the stage.

Leonard elicited the help of some other Texas natives to bring the opera to fruition. After reaching initial fundraising goals, he commissioned Rude Mechs co-founder and current department head of playwriting Kirk Lynn as the opera’s librettist, as well as Austin composer and member of the Golden Hornet Project Peter Stopschinski to pen the score. The result is a contemporary approach to the medium, making opera accessible through a blend of classical, country, gospel, rock, and homecoming parade.

The opera has garnered a flurry of regional and national press, from radio and television stations across Houston, to NFL.com and the ESPN blog. After development and workshop performances, Bum Phillips All-American Opera is ready for its New York world premiere, with the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club providing the venue and co-producing the performance. Leonard is also working hard to give the show a Texas premiere.

As this new work makes its way to the stage, Leonard reflects on his time at UT. “The M.F.A. in directing program nurtured my growth as a producer and director by including new works at the core of the curriculum,” he says, “providing me with opportunities to take some risks and explore my interests in a public way.”

Bum Phillips All-American Opera is slated to open March 13-30, 2014 at the Ellen Stewart Theater in New York. For more information visit MonkParrots.org and BumPhillipsOpera.com.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

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