Opera: Terence Blanchard / Champion

The Metropolitan Opera
Composed by Terence Blanchard / Libretto by Michael Cristofer
Ryan Speedo Green (Emile Griffith), Eric Owens (older Griffith), Latonia Moore (Emelda Griffith), Stephanie Blythe (Kathy Hagan), Eric Greene (Benny ‘Kid’ Paret), Paul Groves (Howie Albert), Chauncey Packer (Rodrigo), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)

I just installed a TV in my upstairs man cave lair today. And what better way to break it in than to frantically search for my user/pass combo and gain entry into The Metropolitan Opera’s streaming app so I can watch some real he-man programming: Jazz composer Terence Blanchard‘s boxing-themed opera, Champion.

Champion is the second Blanchard opera that The Met has staged, following their 2021 production of his Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which received raves. I learned that these two operas by maestro Blanchard are the only two operatic properties ever staged by a black composer at The Metropolitan.

Let me see if I’ve got this right. We’re talking about no black composers’ operas being staged at the temple of opera in… New York?? How did this not happen earlier? Black composers have been penning operas at least since Scott Joplin‘s Treemonisha. I guess the gatekeepers at The Met felt like after 110 years maybe the time for black opera was juuuust right [EYEROLL EMOJI].

This new work reunites cast members Ryan Speedo Green, Latonia Moore and Ethan Joseph from Fire and also features familiar Metropolitan faces Eric Owens and Paul Groves. Maestro Blanchard calls this work “an opera in jazz” – a way of contacting operatic themes using his musical vernacular as opposed to writing a “jazz opera” which might cause confusion in the marketplace and relegate his grander aspirations to the cultural crawlspace of genre. I tend to be enthusiastic about any creator who attempts to integrate modern instruments, grooves, pop styles, or other relatively audacious ideas into the operatic medium. At the same time I’m highly sensitive to how any attempt at those integrations could push a production over the line Broadway or pop in the minds of critics and purists. Interested to see how this one would thread the needle.

The story of Champion is based on the life story of Emile Griffith, a Virgin Islands-born boxer who is remembered for three things: His stellar run as a fighter in the mid-1960s, his killing of an opponent in the ring, and for being a gay man in the world of boxing. The story is told with three singers playing Griffith at different point in his life: as a child, a boxer in his prime, and in his old age with dementia. The non-linear plot weaves back and forth in the life of Griffith, and often overlaps when all three characters appear on stage at the same time.

The opera opens in the mid-2000s. Emile Griffith (Eric Owens) is now an old man suffering from dementia pugilistica. Rodrigo, his caregiver (Chauncey Packer) is helping Emile navigate a fog of confusion which for him only occasionally lifts. They are seen in a bedroom situated above the stage. The main action telling the story of Emile’s younger years, occurs on the stage level. The scene shift here when a young Emile arrives in the USA to look for his mother Emelda. The mother (excellently played by Latonia Moore) doesn’t remember him but takes him under her wing anyway. She finds him a job in a hat-making plant, where Howie, the owner (Paul Groves), feels that Emile would make a good boxer. The transition from immigrant to ring contender is easy and he seems to be on his way to making it big in America.

But soon enough Emile finds himself conflicted about his identity as he finds himself drawn to the then-illicit gay/drag subculture of NYC. In one of the operas more riveting moments, Emile as a child appears at front of stage to enact Emile’s traumatic memories of his abuse at the hands of a sadistic older cousin. As this plays out the older Emile appears in his bedroom above and acts out these scenes from memory with halting movements that mimic the drama below.

The pivotal moment in the opera is the championship fight between Griffith and Paret. During the weigh-in, Paret pats Griffith on his ass and calls him a maricón. Griffith goes out of his mind and, deep into the 12th round of the bout, pours his rage at Paret into his punches and beats him into unconsciousness. The first act ends with twin channels of chaos – celebration and impending death.

In Act II, The old Emile can’t stop having nightmares about the fight that ruined two lives so many years earlier. The action shifts to stage level, showing Emile as a successful but haunted man. He tries to put the Paret killing behind him and his bisexuality under wraps, but ends he can’t do either. He gets married to a woman but soon starts hitting the gay bars again. At some point after retirement he is caught coming out of a bar and is jumped by a gang of thugs. This beating, on top of the blows absorbed over the course of a long career in the ring, send him into a downward spiral of needing regular care for the rest of his life.

The opera’s last scenes detail the moving scene where Rodrigo, Emile’s caregiver, arranges a meeting with Benny Paret’s grown son in a city park so that Emile can apologize and get some closure and possible redemption. Following this, all characters appear onstage as a chorus for the stirring finale.

The opera opens with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin showing up to the orchestra pit in one of his goofy trademark “theme” getups. For this event it’s a weird black and white satin thing with a hood. Get it? Like a boxer’s ringside robe, only trimmed like a tuxedo. Every day’s Halloween with this guy.

Not long into the first act it becomes apparent that Champion is not sung-through. There are many moments where the musical flow grinds to a halt for bits of spoken dialogue: commentary at the tail ends of arias and scenes, little semi-comic interjections by the ring announcer (Lee Wilkof), and other bits and bobs along the way. It’s not just singspiel; Even Paul Groves, a fine tenor, seems to belt and bark his way through whole scenes as opposed to moving the plot forward through music.

I was surprised by this Broadway-ish aspect to the work. There are other scenes that would seem to derive from the influence of traditional musical theater like some dance sequences that accompany the action. Effective as eye candy and underscore the rhythmic thrust of the music, but they are sometimes a little too close to the generic dancing you might see on a pop stage of any act in any genre.

Blanchard succeeds better in the bar scene Hey Man, Buy You A Drink?, where he seems to evoke his idea of “opera in jazz” to the maximum. Emile picks up a stud in the bar and the music adds fine counterpoint to the pickup ritual between Emile and a rather sleazy looking patron.

The scene where young Emile if punished by his evil cousin by holding a cinder block over his head is inventive and moving — ask mentioned previously, there are three dimension to the scene: The boy in the spotlight foreground standing and being tortured, the bar in the background with patrons frozen, and the old dementia-racked Emile on the upper tier in his bedroom standing with his hands over his head holding an imaginary block over his head. The young and old Emiles sing a duet as the boy, who has been told over and over that he has the devil in him pleads with the devil to make him strong; it is in scenes like this where Blanchard’s vocal writing takes its best form and emotional power.

The boxing match at the close of Act I where the tragic beating and death of Kid Paret is also powerfully depicted, was well paced and staged.

The performances do much to shore up the gaps in the dramatic flow. Ryan Speedo Green capably handles the lead part; I could see him being recruited to perform this part for different companies around the world. Kudos to Eric Owens, who as the older Emile does a fine job in a role that is not anyone’s idea of a plum leading operatic voice. But the standout was Latonia Moore, a ball of fire in this performance, and who for me stole the show.

The music of Champion is finely composed and does a good job of showing contemporary sophistication interwoven with a jazz sensibility. Drilling down a bit, I felt the melodies in the interstitial scenes between arias climactic moments were hit-or-miss. This is a curious condition because I felt that a music master like Blanchard would be unencumbered by staid classical conventions of 21st century harmony, free to go for the gut with driving rhythms and addictive ear worm vocal lines. But what I projected was only found in modest amounts over the course of the opera. By the composer has my sympathy who refrains from making the music so pop that it would water down the sophistication of the music and doom the work to lightweight status. You are more likely to buy a winning Mega Millions ticket than to pen operatic music that can satisfy the illuminati while being hummable to the general public. This stuff is hard!

Act II begins again in the bedroom of the older Griffith during an imaginary visitation from a still young Benny Paret; Emile will try for the rest of his life to shake his ghost I have to say that Eric Greene, the guy playing Paret, is the most built dude you’re likely to see on an opera stage. He could be on the cover of Iron Man next to the lead article set in some large bold type screaming Top 5 Ways to Get Granite-Hard Pecs! Amazing how The Met managed to source a singer who can hold his own on the grandest stage in the country and also be so immaculately sculpted. Did he have to take his shirt off for the audition?

Then we transition to a semi-surreal choreographed sequence with Emile at the top of the boxing world and surrounded by dancers on a disco-ish stage. It’s nice that the extras keep the visuals exciting at regular intervals, but the dancing sometimes recalled the generic symmetrical kind of thing you see accompanying big time pop stars, the kind where everybody twirls and twerks and waves their arms around like those Hindu gods with 8 arms.

Inspired, poignant scenes: The duets between the boxer Emile and his manager in the ring on stage level and the his older self up above talking with his caregiver. The caregiver of old Emile and the manager of his younger self are giving the same advice at different stages of his life. The tragic sequence where Emile gets beaten by thugs on his exit from a gay bar; as the younger Emile falls to the sidewalk in the darkness of an alley, when the thugs disperse the lights go up to reveal that the former boxer Emile has become his older self.

The opera ends with the stirring number At The End Of The Day, with the older Emile center stage surrounded by his younger selves, all other characters, and the full chorus.

I liked Champion more for the modernity it introduces into the operatic stage, and in revealing new directions for new composers. I kept rooting for Blanchard’s opera to stay true to his musical vision while hewing to the line of operatic form, but the work is not consistent in that regard. Overall for me I felt there was too much singspiel that could have been turned into a river of melody. Thematically the leitmotif that hooked me was not found in the music but in the 3-level characterization of Emile. Champion is an opera where the inconsistency in the musical flow is very much buoyed by the dramatic content, and librettist Michael Cristofer deserves a callout for his effective partnership with Blanchard in this work.

There are some modern operatic composers and dramatists who have created works that left me loathe to ever see or hear another one of their works again. Terence Blanchard is not one of these; despite Champion’s flaws, I’m now enthusiastically looking forward to reviewing his Fire Shut Up In My Bones that was staged by the Met some few years back. And surely better things to come.