Google “Movies about boxers” and dozens of titles come up. Google “Operas about boxers” and one title appears. Google “Movies about gay boxers” and there are still a half-dozen titles. Google “Operas about gay boxers” and the same title that popped up before reappears.
That opera is Champion by New Orleans native and multiple Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard which New Orleans Opera will be presenting on March 9 and 11 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in its regional premiere.
In ten scenes that move as quickly as a boxing match, Champion describes the life of Emile Griffith, three-time World Welterweight Champion, two-time World Middleweight Champion, and a gay or, perhaps more properly, bisexual man. He fought from the late 1950s into the 1970s.
Griffith is best remembered for his 1962 championship fight with Benny “The Kid” Paret in which the seventeen punches he landed on Paret in seven seconds resulted in not only a knockout, but also a coma from which Paret would never recover. Paret died ten days later.
“I kill a man,” Griffith, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was quoted as saying, “and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin.” (Rendered more poetically in Michael (The Shadow Box) Cristofer’s libretto as “I killed a man and the world forgives me; I love a man and the world wants to kill me.”)
Married to Robin Burgess for twenty years and the father of two college-age daughters from a previous marriage, Blanchard was raised in a socially conscious household and said in a recent interview that Griffith’s statement was what drew him to this topic. “It cuts to the ironic core of what happened to him and so many others in his position.” He adds, “For me, the real issue is not that he was gay, but that he was being treated unfairly because he was different. What was important was to show how he was living his life in a secret way.”
Champion began to take shape after James Robinson, Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Gene Bradford, Executive Director of Jazz St. Louis, had a conversation about broadening their viewerships. Bradford, who had previously worked with Blanchard, said “I have the perfect guy for you.”
Though Blanchard had already done many film scores, including Eve’s Bayou and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Crooklyn, he said “When the guys from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis first approached me about this I thought they were crazy. I thought they had the wrong guy.”
They did not. While Blanchard did not see any operas when he was younger, he grew up in a musical household where his parents wanted him to become a classical musician. “My father loved opera,” Blanchard said. “I used to hear it all the time.”
Blanchard recalls that his father would often be at home, singing opera at the piano. When the teenage Blanchard would bring friends over to visit, he would check to make sure his father wasn’t vocalizing as having an opera-singing father wasn’t exactly the coolest thing.
Yet when composing Champion, Blanchard said of his father, a baritone who studied opera, “It was impossible not to feel an emotional connection to him.” Blanchard remembered about his youth, “I argued with Dad about music but he allowed me to have my own opinions.”
Champion fuses different genres of music–jazz, traditional opera, gospel, parade music–to create something unique. There are even moments of improvisation in it (“Giving opera people free range was new for some of them,” Blanchard said. “They really got into it later on.”)
Because of this, Blanchard claims that Champion is “uniquely positioned to bring people to check out opera who haven’t done so in the past.” Yet he also assures opera fans that they “won’t be disappointed.”
Indeed they won’t. I recently heard a segment from Champion, a soul-searching aria for Griffith that features a soaring melodicism reminiscent of Puccini. Perhaps not surprisingly, La bohème is Blanchard’s favorite opera.
Unlike film scores or his jazz compositions, the challenge of crafting an operatic score, Blanchard said, is “writing for voice over an extended period of time. I’m creating the imagery myself; in film, I’m getting cues from what I see on screen.”
Though this “proud product of the New Orleans public school system” (he studied with Roger Dickerson and Ellis Marsalis Jr. at NOCCA) comes off as the epitome of cool, he says that when he was working on this first opera of his (he’s now at work on his second), “I was a nervous wreck,” recalling that at one point he had to change the key of a passage to accommodate a singer.
More importantly, “I wanted to make sure that all of the musical lines sounded natural” for the words of the libretto.
Working with Cristofer, with whom he had previously collaborated on the 1998 TV movie Gia and the 2001 film Original Sin, both of which starred Angelina Jolie, Blanchard said “I didn’t want to turn Griffith into a sex-crazed person,” merely for dramatic purposes. “He was very sweet and not a very outgoing person.”
Blanchard never had the chance to meet Griffith as he was suffering from dementia by time the composer started working on the opera; Griffith passed away in 2013 not long after Champion’s world premiere in St. Louis.
“All the journalists knew Griffith was gay or bisexual but they didn’t say anything,” said Blanchard. “At a press conference before their fight, Paret called him out [with a derogatory slur] to try to gain a psychological edge after each had won a fight against the other. What people don’t know is that Griffith and Paret were friends. They used to play basketball together.”
It’s clear that Griffith’s situation pains Blanchard. “He became welterweight champion of the world but couldn’t share it [openly] with someone he loved,” he remarked at a recent luncheon sponsored by the New Orleans Opera.
When I asked him later during our interview if any of the music he had written for Griffith’s character in the opera could be considered “gay (or gay-boxer)” (assuming there even is such a thing), he immediately responded “No way. We all have our differences but one’s sexuality, that doesn’t matter.”
Ironically, around the time of Champion’s premiere, basketball player Jason Collins came out and Michael Sam, the openly gay football player, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams so the opera “seemed timely,”observed Blanchard.
Champion would go on to be produced by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center last year in D.C. Blanchard said that it was “amazing to see a very diverse crowd there. The cool thing about Champion is that it has been bringing new people in to see opera.” He adds, without naming any names, that “I was shocked to see certain political figures there.”
In the course of the productions, it has been deeply satisfying to Blanchard to observe the evolution of the opera. “Arthur [Woodley, who plays Emile Griffith] has been learning more about his character with each production. I get excited to see what’s going to happen next.”
Despite all the acclaim Blanchard has received over the years, he projects a thoroughly engaging and generous presence, someone who can say with unaffected ingenuousness, “It blew me away to see people on stage singing something I’ve written.”
When asked why someone should go see Champion, he referenced its “stirring story, great vocalists, and profound effect on people who have seen it,” and added “I am so proud to be able to share it with people in my home town.”
Whether you’re an opera afficionado or neophyte, a fan of boxing or indifferent to pugilism, head over to the Mahalia Jackson Theater on March 9 or 11 and get in the ring with Champion. It promises to be a knockout.