Billie Jean King’s iconic ‘Battle of the Sexes’ triumph recalled in new opera

A tennis match watched round the world, and an arcane bird-watching contest — in “Birds and Balls,” Opera Parallèle’s enticing new double bill, competition is the name of the game.

Both one-act operas — “Balls,” a dramatization of the epic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and “Vinkensport, or the Finch Opera,” inspired by a Flemish folk sport — are directed by Opera Parallèle director Brian Staufenbiel and conducted by company music director Nicole Paiement. Performances are April 5-7 at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium.

“Balls,” by award-winning composer Laura Karpman, with a libretto by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, is the main event — one that re-creates the historic “Battle of the Sexes” match with commentary from the sidelines by a range of supporting characters, including Howard Cosell, Larry King, and Susan B. Anthony.

Karpman, whose career spans opera, theater, and film — earlier this year, her music for “American Fiction” was honored with a best original score Academy Award nomination — says “Balls” uses the match “to look at a time of intense change.”

“It was a tennis match,” the composer said in a recent call from her Los Angeles home. “It wasn’t Wimbledon. It wasn’t even part of the tour. It was a show match. But what was at stake was massive. It was a watershed moment in the feminist movement, and certainly one for women’s sports. I think it went beyond that — and the question is ‘Can a woman play her own game and rise to the ultimate success — which is, in this case, beating the guy.”

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Karpman said that the more she considered the idea, the more she liked it. “It was kitschy, in a sense, and I thought that it was great fodder for a comic opera — a funny story on the surface, and a very important historical moment in all of its implications.”

For director Staufenbiel, who is transforming the Miner Auditorium into the historic stadium, the hook was the way Karpman and Collins wove real-life characters into the opera.

“You have Susan B. Anthony coming at the start of the piece, giving us the back story of suffrage and coaching Billie Jean in a serious way,” he said. “It’s a wonderful moment. I mean, people forget that not long ago, women couldn’t even have their own credit cards.”

“Vinkensport,” by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, considers another kind of contest, said the director, one that considers the lengths to which bird-lovers — and bird trainers — will go to claim the prize for most melodious bird.

“It’s called Finch-Sitting,” said Staufenbiel. “It’s fun, it’s eccentric, but it’s also profound. It goes deep into the human condition. The characters have moments that I call ‘externalized internal moments,’ and they’re sharing that. Some of them are lonely, some are feeling insecure. They’ve had loss in their lives. And they are obsessed with the birds.”

With casts featuring Nikola Printz (as Billie Jean King), Shawnette Sulker, Nathan Granner, Daniel Cilli, Mark Hernandez, and Jamie Chamberlin, each opera last about an hour, and, as with previous Opera Parallèle productions, setting these works in the high-tech environment of SFJAZZ makes it all possible. Staufenbiel notes that the venue’s in-the-round seating made previous company endeavors like “Champion,” set inside a boxing ring, possible — and says the environment is just as ideal for this immersive double bill.

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“We’re using the Center’s wrap-around screens and live cameras to capture the audience and project them on the other wall live. In ‘Balls,’ you’ll feel like you’re in the Astrodome. We’ll also have the section right above the stage that will become a kind of television. It’s like the Wide World of Sports, because the opera has Howard Cosell in it, some commercials from the period, some interviews we’ve re-enacted from Billie Jean King’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’ broadcast. We’re calling it the SFJAZZ Astrodome, and it’s been a joy to put it all together.”

Contact Georgia Rowe at growe@pacbell.net

‘BIRDS AND BALLS’

Presented by Opera Parallèle

When: 7:30 p.m. April 5, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 6, 2 p.m. April 7

Where: Miner Auditorium, SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco

Tickets: $30-$185; sfjazz.org

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