A NIGHT AT THE BUM PHILLIPS OPERA
By Mike Tanier
NEW YORK — The opera begins with the national anthem. The characters stand at attention: depression-era townsfolk, a lonesome cowboy and men in uniforms. Not military uniforms, Houston Oilers uniforms. Sound effects even provide an Air Force flyover.
Suddenly, the music shifts to marching band fare, and one of the Oilers — wide receiver Ken Burrough, wearing his signature No. 00 jersey — end-zone struts across the stage. Three sportscasters wearing 1970s blazers march into the spotlight.
Get ready for the greatest game on earth:
Football! The ballet of the masses.
Projected here on the Jumbotron
So you won’t need opera glasses.
This is not your typical night at the opera. Bum Phillips All-American Opera is not about Teutonic gods or Shakespearean kings, but a football coach who never reached the Super Bowl and whose team no longer exists. Instead of legendary battles, the characters reenact the 1979 AFC playoffs. Instead of Siegfried, there’s backup quarterback Gifford Nielsen.
Bum Phillips mixes high tragedy with low comedy as it tells the story of Oail Andrew Phillips (1923-2013), Orange, Texas, native; World War II veteran; head coach of the Houston Oilers during a brief golden age when they were the lovable, rambunctious foils for the unbeatable Pittsburgh Steelers; and born-again Christian philanthropist. It’s the only opera anywhere in the world that has characters wearing foam fingers and “Luv Ya Blue” T-shirts, or has singing parts for both Earl Campbell and Jesus.
It’s not what you expect when you arrive at La MaMa, a sparse performance space in the East Village. But then, you should not walk into an indie opera in Lower Manhattan about a 1970s football coach with any hard-and-fast expectations. “I’m attracted to the strange,” said Luke Leonard, director of Bum Phillips and founder of the Monk Parrots experimental theater company. “I’ve done stranger things.”
Football. Faith. Family. Opera. The worlds of football and opera are not that far apart Leonard, who rooted for Phillips’ Oilers as a child. “Opera and football are epic,” he said. “Texas, football, opera: These things are associated with grand scale.”
Those worlds are also not so far apart for composer Peter Stopschinski, a Houston native whose father was a huge sports fan and mother was a Juilliard graduate. “I grew up in the perfect situation to be the composer of this opera,” he joked.
Phillips’ country-western drawl is also not so far removed from the New York lively arts scene — it’s closer than Wagner’s world of German-singing demigods, anyway. “It was fun to take something like opera and put it in the vernacular of my people,” said librettist Kirk Lynn, a San Antonio native.
Classic operas dramatized epic battles from the eyes of gods, generals and kings; a football coach looking on as his team grapples with the 1970s Steelers is a close-enough approximation. And football has borrowed plenty of ideas from opera, as anyone who ever watched a vintage NFL Films documentary (complete with swelling Sam Spence orchestral music) can verify. “That music’s a little unforgettable,” said Stopschinski.
Fair enough. But why Bum Phillips? Phillips coached the Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) to a 55-35 record in the late 1970s, never progressing beyond the AFC title game. He was away from football for nearly 30 years prior to his death late last year. If three Texan opera buffs wanted a football topic, they could easily have chosen Tom Landry or Roger Staubach.
But Bum Phillips, like its subject, is about more than football. Leonard admits that nostalgia initially drew him to the project. “The theme that was on my mind was happiness, and when Bum’s name popped into my head the warmest smile just crossed my face,” he said. But as he learned more about Phillips, Leonard began to explore deeper themes: forgiveness, love and the true meaning of success.
Phillips, who served in the Marines during World War II, left the NFL when he lost his passion for the game in 1985. He spent the next three decades rebuilding his personal life — the NFL lifestyle had ruined his first marriage and caused rifts with his children — and devoting himself to faith and charitable work. Phillips regularly visited death-row prisoners and founded a ministry that provides services for deaf children and adults. Bum Phillips focuses as much on Phillips’ earlier and later life as the Luv Ya Blue era. Phillips’ mother waits by the mailbox for news from the war. Prisoners sing a spiritual for the old coach who took the time to speak to them. Like Phillips, the production searches for more meaningful victories than Super Bowls.
Phillips, it turns out, is a better opera subject than an all-time champion like Landry. Phillips’ NFL career plays like a grand tragedy: a famous nullified touchdown in the 1978 AFC Championship Game is treated with the operatic grandeur of a hero’s death on the battlefield. Phillips himself can be a comic figure, and the creators borrowed from classic characters like Falstaff to translate his personality to opera.
Phillips’ iconoclastic attitude plays into the opera’s themes. “Tom Landry, Bear Bryant, those guys wore fedoras. This was a time when coaches wore suits on the sideline,” Leonard explained. “And here comes Bum Philips in a cowboy hat, western pearl-snap shirt, cowboy boots, chewing tobacco. He was anti-corporate, anti-business. He was about family.”
The inspirational Bum. The creators of Bum Phillips met the subject of their opera and received his blessing before Phillips passed away last December. Phillips, his second wife and his daughters served the creators lunch (“sandwiches, Fritos and beans,” in Stopschinski’s words) and talked football and music. “I asked him what kind of music he likes,” Stopschinski recalled. “He looked at me, and just said: ‘What kind of music do you think I like?'”
Phillips selected a specific musical work — the soundtrack to the John Wayne film The Searchers — and themes from that score joined a musical DNA that including everything from the Oilers’ multiple theme songs (“Houston Oilers,” the Beatles-inspired “Luv Ya Blue,” a local hit called “Oiler Cannonball”), military marches, gospel and Aaron Copland. Stopschinski often composed while wearing an autographed Earl Campbell jersey. Lynn drew inspiration from Phillips’ funny quotes (Terry Bradshaw could “throw a football through a car wash without it getting wet”) and homespun wisdom. Leonard battled for years to bring his vision to the stage.
Composing an opera, like assembling a playoff-caliber football team, isn’t easy. “It was a steady part of my diet for three-and-a-half years,” Stopschinski said of his workload.
Producing and directing one is even harder: Investors do not kick down the door to finance independent operas, no matter how conventional or unlikely the subject matter. “I loved every minute of it, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Leonard said.
The opera runs through March 30 at La MaMa, with a benefit performance on March 20. It then travels to Austin for performances at the Texas State History Museum. Additional shows and a trip to Houston will require additional funding: Bum Phillips is a production on a shoestring.
Bum Phillips All-American Opera, is like its subject in many ways: unique, audacious, quirky, a proud underdog striving to succeed on its own terms. It’s not an opera about football or a football yarn set to music, but a tribute to a singular American personality, a sincere Valentine to Texas, Christianity, families and football brought to you by the Manhattan experimental theater crowd.
Leonard hopes to bring new faces into the lively theater, as well as shake up the opera establishment with something far outside the box. “We’re really looking for gaps to fill and ways to bring communities together,” he said. “This is an opportunity to reach a new audience.”
Just as important, the creators wanted to share an unlikely source of inspiration: a football coach who truly understood that there is more to life than winning Super Bowls. “Bum doesn’t change the world,” Leonard said, adapting an old saying about art. “Bum changes people. And people change the world.”
“That’s what we loved about Bum,” Leonard added. “He loved us first.”