Why it took two women to write 'Balls,' the opera about Billie Jean King's 'Battle of the Sexes'
By Catherine Womack
Feb 22, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Composer Laura Karpman was walking on the beach in front of her house when the idea hit her: She would write an opera about tennis great Billie Jean King, and it had to be called “Balls.”
Karpman had been in her early teens when she first watched King dismantle Bobby Riggs’ made-for-TV chauvinism one volley at a time, live on ABC in their “Battle of the Sexes” match.
“Everybody was watching,” she remembers of the tennis showdown, which King won. “It was 1973 and at that point I was already composing. It gave me the feeling that I could do anything.”
As her career writing concert music and film scores progressed, Karpman realized that she, like King, faced systemic sexism in her chosen field. She wasn’t going to be handed the same opportunities that her male colleagues were given. She had to make them happen.
Taking an opera from shoreline epiphany to fully formed production is a lengthy and complex process, regardless of institutional gender bias. But this week “Balls” will be one of six new operas featured in “First Take,” the biennial workshop co-produced by the Industry, the innovative L.A. opera company, and wild Up, the contemporary music ensemble.
“First Take” provides composers with the chance to hear their opera performed in front of an audience, to test out ideas and see what works, and to leave with a high-quality video recording that can be put in the hands of potential producers.
For those in the audience, “First Take” is a fascinating sneak peek into the future of American opera. For a composer like Karpman, it’s also a chance for increased visibility: “Balls” is the only one of the six works to be composed by a woman.
The irony is not lost on Industry artistic director and “First Take” founder Yuval Sharon.
“We take it really seriously and we definitely talked about it,” Sharon says. “This year’s program is not as equal in terms of gender as we would like it to be, but I think that in a sense we are doubling down by adding Laura’s voice to the program. The theme of her piece really is the equality of the sexes.”
Sharon hopes that audiences will look at his company’s larger record of inclusivity (the last two iterations of “First Take” have featured a higher percentage of female composers), and the other ways in which this year’s composers are diverse.
“We are aware and we advocate as much as possible for all kinds of equality,” Sharon says. “To me, opera is a vital art form because of its potential for diversity.”
Initial financial backing for “Balls” came to Karpman in the form of a 2015 Opera America Discovery Grant. Karpman points to that grant as an example of a program making a difference in the careers of female composers.
With financial backing, Karpman could take the first step in bringing King’s story to the stage: finding a librettist who could write about a serious, politically charged subject with wit and playfulness.
Karpman decided right away that New York Times op-ed columnist and author Gail Collins was the right person, not only because she’s an expert on American history as it relates to women but also because “she has a kind of irony and humor even when she is talking about the most tense situations.”
Karpman pitched the idea in a cold letter, and Collins agreed to join the “Balls” team.
Like Karpman, Collins remembers watching the “Battle of the Sexes” match live.
“Laughing at women was the thing that everybody used to try to undermine the women’s movement,” Collins says, citing Riggs’ attempts at psyching out King through overtly sexist statements and stunts.
“The fact that she just gave it right back to him, that she was sassy and on the mark and that she figured out how to stand up for herself when people tried laughing at her — to me that was the great story of the whole thing,” Collins says. “I still remember her being carried out on that litter by those guys. It was so funny. She was so cool. She just turned it around.”
In her 2009 book, “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present,” Collins explains the sociopolitical significance of that tennis match. She says she runs into so many younger women who have read the book and tell her that they didn’t really know the story of the women’s movement. “If ‘Balls’ can bring that to more people, then that by itself will make me really happy,” she says.
“Balls” is Collins’ first foray into libretto writing, so she worked closely with Karpman throughout the process. They decided to tell the story in one act, using an onstage tennis match as the main narrative device. Live-cued samples of bouncing tennis balls are embedded in the score, and portions of the libretto were sourced from a transcript of the ’73 broadcast.
Surrealist elements are included as well. It was Collins’ idea to bring suffragist Susan B. Anthony into the story through some creative time-hopping.
For Sharon and the rest of the “First Take” selection committee, “Balls” stood out because of its originality and relevance to contemporary politics.
The parallels between the King-Riggs match and the 2016 presidential debates were not lost on Karpman and Collins, who wrote the bulk of the libretto against the backdrop of the presidential election.
Although King won her battle of the sexes and Hillary Clinton did not, Collins says, the women are similarly important characters in an ongoing story.
“Hillary Clinton has not ever gotten elected president, but she has taught every generation to come that these are normal things women do,” she says. “That’s a historical triumph that she will always have. And Billie, in a very different and more fun way, told the same story with that tennis match.”
Of the sexism that Trump and Riggs displayed, Karpman says: “It’s there and we just have to face it head on like Billie Jean King did, with the same kind of courage and the same sort of fortitude that she had.”
In other words, whatever your particular talent or medium, grow a pair and get ready for the fight.
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Where: Aratani Theater, 244 S. San Pedro St., L.A.
When: 7-10:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets: Free on a first-come, first-serve basis (doors at 6:30 p.m.); reserved seats available for $10 online