‘Balls:’ The Billie Jean King Opera

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Photo by Matthew Pham

Bill Simons

Tournaments, trophies and libraries are named for her. The biggest tennis center in the world bears her name. Books, biopics and a Hollywood movie sing her praises – so why shouldn’t there be an opera about Billie Jean King?

Now, Opera Parallele and SF Jazz have given us the boldly-named opera “Balls” that, with vigor and delight, celebrates the most storied tennis match anyone could imagine, “The Battle of the Sexes.”

The stage at SF Jazz, that is transformed into the Houston Astrodome, may be modest, but the scope of “Balls” is vast. Its imagination has few bounds.

As happened in Texas in 1973, tennis’ Joan of Arc enters on a Roman litter carried by four topless, barrel-chested hunks. Except that Billie Jean, brilliantly portrayed by Nikola Prinz, is now full throated and prone to offering arias.

Tennis’ most beloved villain, Bobby Riggs, is introduced by the pompous, patronizing and poorly toupeed broadcaster Howard Cosell. Clearly Riggs has turned chauvinistic barbs into an art form. He can’t help but hustle: “The male is king. The male is supreme. Girls are good when they’re in the kitchen or the bedroom, but when you put them on court with a man, even an old man like me, they’re in trouble.”

Cosell then goes into the orchestra pit and tells Nicole Paiement, the conductor of “Balls” that, “Many think sports is a man’s game.” Paiement says, “Think again.” Cosell then asks, “What will it take for Billie to win?” Nicole replies, “Balls!”

King understands that the Battle of the Sexes is a circus, but it’s also far more than a tennis match. She says it goes beyond sports, women’s rights and power. Feminism is for everyone.

Billie Jean has trained – she’s prepared. Women have to be twice as good as men. Her rousing aria on how pressure is a privilege tells us she has to be perfect. With a laser focus she insists, “Every shot makes a difference.” The chorus reminds her that she may not be able to get a credit card on her own, but now she’s going to be a legend.

“Balls” takes us back to the free-form 70s with its long hair, miniskirts and tie-dyed shirts. As the chorus chants “Can you dig it? Right on! Cool, man!” we see ads with quarterback Joe Namath hawking shaving cream and are told that Virginia Slims cigarettes are “perfectly tailored for the feminine hand.”

All the while, Riggs, in his Sugar Daddy coat, insists he’ll protect mankind, and psyche out “the little lady:” “At the end of the day Billie Jean won’t be king.”

But the chorus is dismissive, “Talk, talk, talk, that’s all Bobby does…Anyone can hustle, but she can play!”

While Billie’s pal, commentator “Little Rosie” Casals says Riggs is “nothing but a duck-footed chauvinist,” Billie Jean taps into her inner Martin Luther King and sings, “I saw the dream before me.”

As the drama deepens, we see an engaging supporting cast: King’s husband, Larry, Riggs’s wingman, Lornie Kuhle, and King’s soon-to-be-problematic lover, hair stylist Marilyn Barnett, who’s dreaming of living with Billie in a big Malibu house.

Then, in a delightful leap of imagination, none other than Susan B. Anthony, the 19th century founder of feminism, appears as Billie’s pre-match sage. As we see stirring footage of brave, sincere suffragette pioneers, the clairvoyant Anthony tells Billie, “You will meet the love of your life when you’re playing doubles.” Then Anthony reminds King: “They laughed at us, but we won big battles.”

And, on a mini-court on stage, Billie Jean wins a big battle. With choppy, mime-like shots, she dismisses the sweaty, tired old man, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Riggs is reduced to repeatedly saying, “Atta girl!” and admits he underestimated Billie. She replies, “Women are always underestimated.”

Billie blissfully waves a flag in front of the 30,472 fans and some 90 million viewers.

Trumpets and horns sound. A rousing chorus tells King, “You cradled our hopes. History was made. Victory is ours.” Then we see a video homage to Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.

In “Balls,” every point makes a point. And Susan B. Anthony tells the triumphant Billie, “When I saw you come in on that litter, my heart skipped a beat!”

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