|Opera by Terence Blanchard|
The composer and his wife Robin Burgess at the premiere
|Based on||life of Emile Griffith|
15 June 2013
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, St. Louis
Champion is an African-American boxing opera in two acts and ten scenes, with music by Terence Blanchard and a libretto by Michael Cristofer. Based on the life of welterweight prize fighting champion Emile Griffith, this opera is a joint co-commission by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) and Jazz St. Louis. It received its premiere at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, Webster University, on 15 June 2013. The opera received its second production, with a revised orchestration by Blanchard, by Opera Parallèle in San Francisco, in collaboration with SFJAZZ, in February 21, 2016. The third production of the opera was in March 5, 2017 by Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Champion developed out of conversations between OTSL and Jazz St. Louis, and the companies' shared desire to collaborate on a commission that would combine opera and jazz. Blanchard himself described the work, his first opera, with the term "opera in jazz" rather than a "jazz opera". In 2011, the Whitaker Foundation of St. Louis provided the initial $200,000 leadership gift needed to fund the commissioning and development costs of the new work. In 2012, Opera Theatre received a $1M (USD) challenge grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which would underwrite a substantial portion of the production costs of Champion, as well as Ricky Ian Gordon's opera 27 (premiered at OTSL in 2014) and a new production of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline (presented in 2015). Additional support for Champion was provided by the Fred M. Saigh Endowment at Opera Theatre, the National Endowment for the Arts, OPERA America's Opera Fund, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Phoebe Dent Weil, and The Aaron Copland Fund for Music.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 15 June 2013
(Conductor: George Manahan)
|Cast for first performance of version with revised orchestration, 19 February 2016|
(Conductor: Nicole Paiement)
|Emile Griffith||bass||Arthur Woodley||Arthur Woodley|
|Young Emile Griffith||bass-baritone||Aubrey Allicock||Kenneth Kellogg|
|Emelda Griffith, Emile's mother||mezzo-soprano||Denyce Graves||Karen Slack|
|Howie Albert, Emile's trainer||baritone||Robert Orth||Robert Orth|
|Kathy Hagan, a bar owner||mezzo-soprano||Meredith Arwady||Michelle Rice|
|Benny 'Kid' Paret / Benny Paret Jr, a boxer / his son||tenor||Victor Ryan Robertson||Victor Ryan Robertson|
|Luis Rodrigo Griffith, Emile's adopted son and caretaker||tenor||Brian Arreola||Andres Ramirez|
|Sadie Donastrog Griffith / Cousin Blanche||soprano||Chabrelle Williams||Chabrelle Williams|
|Little Emile (Emile as a young boy)||boy soprano||Jordan Jones||Noah Patton|
|Ring Announcer||tenor||Christopher Hutchinson||Mark Hernandez|
|Chorus of Reporters, photographers, hat makers, men at the boxing gym, Caribbean paraders, Drag queens|
Scene 1 begins in Emile Griffith's apartment in Hempstead, Long Island, where he is struggling to dress himself. Suffering from dementia, he is confused and haunted by his past, which the opera presents in flashback. Luis, his adopted son and caretaker, reminds him to be ready for an important meeting with Benny Paret, Jr.
Late 1950's: Emile is a young man in St. Thomas, the US Virgin Islands. He wants to find his mother, Emelda, and make his fortune in America as a singer, a baseball player, and a hat designer. Emile moves to New York. When he finds his mother, she is confused, not sure which of her seven abandoned children he is, but overjoyed. Hoping to find work for Emile, she takes him to meet Howie Albert, a hat manufacturer. Howie sees an opportunity, in that Emile is physically like a boxer, not a hat-maker. Howie decides to train Emile for prizefighting. Giving up his other dreams, Emile quickly develops into a talented welterweight. Lonely and confused by his success, Emile finds his way to a gay bar in Manhattan, whose owner, Kathy Hagan, welcomes him to a frightening and also attractive world. Emile confides in Kathy, revealing some demons from his past. As a boy, his fundamentalist cousin Blanche forced him to hold cinderblocks above his head as punishment for 'having the devil inside him', which gave him his great physical strength.
1962: Emile meets Benny Paret at a weigh-in for their upcoming fight. Paret taunts Emile with the term 'maricon', a disparaging Spanish word for a homosexual. Alone with Howie, Emile tries to talk to him frankly about why this word hurts him so deeply, but for Howie this is something that no one in the fight business wants to talk about. Howie leaves him and Emile wonders what it means to be a man. Emile and Paret prepare for the big fight. Paret continues to taunt Emile, who ultimately delivers seventeen blows in less than seven seconds, which puts Paret into a coma.
Back in Emile's bedroom in the present, Emile is haunted by the ghost of Kid Paret who still questions his old opponent.
Mid- to late 1960s: Emile is enjoying a strong winning streak all over the world. Titles, trophies, and money roll in, but he remains disturbed by the death of Kid Paret. He tries living it up, and, denying his own identity, he takes a young bride, Sadie, although everyone, including his mother Emelda, who remembers her own childhood back in the Islands, warns him against it.
Early 1970s: After the wedding, Emile's luck has changed. He's now on a long losing streak of matches, and beginning to exhibit signs of "boxer's brain", or trauma-related dementia. Howie realizes that Emile's days are numbered and tries to console him. However, Emile rejects Howie, as well as his wife and his mother. Instead, he looks for comfort back at Kathy's bar. Outside in the street, a group of thugs taunt him and beat him violently, exacerbating his brain injuries.
Back in the present, Emile relives the nightmare of the attack. Luis tries to comfort him ("That was long ago"). In a New York City park, Emile asks for forgiveness from Benny Jr. Luis tells Benny that since that evening, Emile has struggled to find peace with what he's done and who he truly is. Back at home, the voices and memories subside.
At its premiere, Champion received generally favourable critical reviews, with respect to the production, direction, and performances of the cast. Several critics noted the coincidence of the production of Champion with then-current events in the USA related to violence against gay people, the attention given to basketball player Jason Collins (the first openly gay athlete with a major American sports team), and the ruling earlier in 2013 by the Supreme Court of the United States on the Defense of Marriage Act. Commentary on the music and libretto was more mixed, though on balance favourable:
- "The music at times sounded thin and the dramatic pace sometimes flagged, but over all the score’s cinematic flow aptly complemented the action on stage."
- "First-time opera composers most often flounder at dramaturgy, and Champion is a bewildering shuffle of episodes... Only a couple of quasi-arias and gratuitous dances are identifiably jazzy. Blanchard’s inexperience with vocal writing is evident in stilted word-setting, and accompaniments often have little evident connection to vocal lines. Vamp-in-place sometimes makes do as underlay for both singing and spoken dialogue."
- "Opera Theatre, which partnered with Jazz Saint Louis on Champion, chose well in tapping Blanchard, whose first operatic score astutely mixes neo-Romanticism with sophisticated jazz elements, such that the latter are at home in the opera house. He skilfully supports recitative-like exchanges with jazzy musical backgrounds but is also capable of creating show-stopping numbers."
- "Unfortuantely [sic] for traditionalists, the format leaves the piece long on feeling and short on audience-appeasing melody. There are arias, with large ideas, like 'What Makes a Man a Man?', but the memorable ones come late in the game. They are replaced with musical lines — Afro-Cuban fast, rich and bluesy — sometimes jarring and unexpected, played by the orchestra and a jazz trio, uttered by the singers. This is a modern piece of art and moves effectively without showstoppers...Champion is painful at times, violent, and it aims for an earthiness opera doesn't always bother with; Verdi's sopranos and tenors tend to die beautiful deaths. The work is full of bashings of many varieties and it flows with obscenities, the f-word, the p-word, the s-word, the c-word (not that c-word, the other one)... Blanchard's orchestral lines, set within the pacings of jazz, bring us there by the end. He delivers a few nearly sweet melodies, but he doesn't give it up to them. Instead, he sticks to those variations of the themes. We don't walk out humming refrains, we wake up the next morning repeating words in our head.
- "That makes this a durable piece of art. Remarkably impure as opera and as jazz, really, but unrelentingly true to itself, over-the-top when it needs to be and unapologetic, just like Verdi."
- "Now, at long last, this enterprising, opera-in-English company has given us those rara aves: a new work of quality and staying power, one that deserves to be taken up by other opera producers far and wide."
- "The result is less an unfolding drama than a two-act fantasia on themes from Griffith's life. This is probably the tactic best suited to Blanchard's technique, at least at this stage of his development as an opera composer. He has definitely written a "numbers" opera: the individual situations bring forth riff-like bursts of invention that develop until they run have their natural course. The music takes on the jagged intervals and dissonant counterpoint of latter-day jazz at one moment, then evokes the heart-on-sleeve emotionality of a Broadway anthem the next. But it never for a moment feels like pastiche: the opera unfolds in a single, compelling compositional voice.
- Still, the drama doesn't move through the music. Key plot points are conveyed in dialogue. Tellingly, the work's climax — when Paret's grown son clasps the older Griffith in a forgiving embrace — transpires in silence. And given its essentially static nature, the work is too long. The various conflicts in Griffith's life are all established in Act I; Act II has its share of dramatically arid stretches. I hope one day to see Champion in a shortened version that will allow Blanchard's very real achievement to shine even more brilliantly."
- "Champion creates a complex picture of sexuality in a conservative era and a deeply homophobic sport. Although the opera’s centerpiece, an aria for the title character called 'What Makes a Man a Man?', is a repetitive musical setting of bad music-theater doggerel, the cumulative effect of Griffith's sexual confusion, exploitation, and unwanted role-playing creates a powerful sense of disempowerment...
- "Blanchard has found a subtle and adaptable music language that serves the most important need of an opera composer: the transmission of a text. In spirit, it is remarkably similar to the devices used by Baroque opera composers in its emphasis on subtly inflected vocal lines over spare and transparent accompaniment figures... the opera is chopped into short scenes, and goes on much too long. It needs drastic editing, but there is real substance to be salvaged."
At the first performance of the second production, in San Francisco, criticisms were similar to the premiere, though again on balance positive:
- "Blanchard has made a point of calling Champion an 'opera in jazz' rather than a 'jazz opera', and as best I can tell, the distinction speaks to his eagerness to use the entire panoply of jazz's musical resources to tell this tale. The score is varied and formally lithe, with each new scene seeming to take a different musical approach...
- The weaknesses in Champion are not difficult to ferret out. It's often flabby, made up of too many scenes that go on for too long, which saps the drama of the momentum on display in the sharpest sequences. Christofer's [sic] libretto has a tendency to opt for tired cliches about manhood and duality rather than fresh language that would throw those issues into relief.
- Yet the figure of the older Griffith — alone with his fears and self-recrimination, his mind fragmented from too many blows to the head — remains a memorable one, especially in a performance of extraordinary gravity and pathos by bass Arthur Woodley. Between his sonorous and nuanced singing and his detailed physical depiction of Griffith's tremulous dignity, Woodley was the heart and soul of this production."
The Washington National Opera production had comparable critiques of the work:
- "Champion is a chain of individual numbers, some of them more predictable than others, and it could stand to be cut, particularly in Act II. But it represents something important and worthwhile, not only in including fresh perspectives but also in presenting, in [Arthur] Woodley's Emile, a character I loved and will remember — which is more than many new operas can boast."
- Vivien Schweitzer (2013-06-21). "Homophobia in the Ring Delivers Fatal Blows: Champion at Opera Theater of Saint Louis". The New York Times.
- Sarah Bryan Miller (June 16, 2013). "Champion lives up to its promise at Opera Theatre of St. Louis". St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
- Joshua Kosman (2016-02-21). "'Champion' fuses jazz and opera in boxing tale". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2016-02-27.
- Anne Midgette (2017-03-05). "Champion brings boxing — and a memorable leading man — to WNO". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-03-19.
- Philip Kennicott (2013-10-31). "Gay Life at the Opera". The New Republic. Retrieved 2016-02-15.
- Scott Cantrell (June 22, 2013). "New Terence Blanchard "Champion" opera isn't a winner". The Dallas Morning News.
- "Champion, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, US – review". Financial Times. June 26, 2013.
- Ray Mark Rinaldi (June 18, 2013). "Terence Blanchard makes Champion his own sort of American masterpiece at Opera Theatre of St. Louis". Denver Post.
- John von Rhein (June 25, 2013). "Blanchard's world premiere opera is a champ in its own right". The Chicago Tribune.
- Fred Cohn (September 2013). "Champion (6/21/13), The Kiss (6/22/13), Il Tabarro & Pagliacci (6/23/13), The Pirates of Penzance (6/22/13) - Saint Louis: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis". Opera News. Retrieved 2016-02-18.
- Patrick Cole (June 26, 2013). "Blanchard Sets Gay Boxer's Sad Legend to Music: Interview". Bloomberg Businessweek.
- Charles J. Gans, Associated Press (June 13, 2013). "Jazz composer Terence Blanchard's new opera Champion inspired by gay boxer Emile Griffith". Star Tribune.
- Kenya Vaughn (June 20, 2013). "'Champion' production compensates for musical strain in Opera Theatre premiere". The St. Louis American.
- Daniel J. Wakin (May 16, 2012). "A Deadly Night in the Boxing Ring Is Grist for an Evening at the Opera". The New York Times.
- Heidi Waleson (June 24, 2013). "A Heavy Weight to Bear". The Wall Street Journal.