Lyric Opera of Chicago 2023-24 Review: Terence Blanchard’s ‘Champion’

A Dazzling Cast Demonstrates Opera in Jazz’s Staying Power

By Benjamin Torbert
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Fresh from a Metropolitan Opera premiere last spring (and its subsequent Grammy Award victory), Terence Blanchard’s first opera in jazz, “Champion,” enjoyed its Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere in James Robinson’s vivid and effective staging, a co-production on January 27th, 2024. A dazzling cast led by Justin Austin as Emile Griffith made a powerful case for repeated revival.

Consider this brief list of works by the composers populating opera’s “Mount Rushmore.” Giuseppe Verdi’s first two operas were “Oberto” and “Un Giorno di Regno.” Richard Wagner’s were “Die Feen” and “Das Liebesverbot.” Giacomo Puccini started with “Le Villi” and “Edgar.” And Mozart’s were—who cares, because he was “like twelve.” Opera companies perform these early pieces extremely rarely, and then only in service of a dutiful completism. Verdi produced an enduring repertory jackpot with his third opera, Nabucco,” Puccini with his third “Manon Lescaut,” Wagner with his fourth completed “Der Fliegende Holländer,” and Mozart with his twelfth “Idomeneo.”

Terence Blanchard’s first two operas are “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” (2019). No one’s kicking Amadeus out of the hall of fame, but who has achieved the most impressive operatic start among these five men appears crystal clear: that’s Blanchard. The comparison may be a little unfair to the late hall of famers in that they were younger, and Blanchard had already reached his fifties and achieved extensively as a composer of jazz and film scores when he began composing opera. If there’s a sicker guitar lick in a movie than Blanchard’s for “BlacKkKlansman’s” (2018) track “Blood and Soil,” I haven’t heard it.

Inclusion / Exclusion

What of opera, and new operas, and personnel? Many Black opera singers express frustration with the glaring discrepancy between opera companies’ PR-expressed values during a post-George Floyd consensus and their actual hiring practices. A growing body of repertory with mostly-Black casts has expanded bandwidth, but even in the 2020s, companies hire many singers whom they retain only for these shows and then proceed to ignore when casting legacy long-19C repertory, much less Baroque. Prejudicial hiring practices also deem Black singers castable for other contemporary works outside the “Black shows,” and yet not, somehow, for legacy rep, especially in German and Russian opera.

Not enough has changed since the Metropolitan Opera finally performed “Porgy and Bess” fifty years late in the 1980s, and the conspicuous mid-1990s disappearance of Black singers therefrom. When the Met returned to “Porgy” in 2019-20, the company employed 36 Black principal artists; 27 appeared only in “Porgy” that season and of the remaining nine, two were Pretty Yende and Golda Schultz, South Africans both, not African Americans. Star bass Morris Robinson has distilled this disturbingly separate-but-equal dynamic in decision-making about hiring and producing new operas, in an incisive one-sentence quip: “Now we’re gonna have six ‘Porgys.’”

Clue-acquisition about inclusive hiring represents much of the battle, but repertory itself also remains a site of exclusion. If opera companies do the right thing, by reviving productions of new works instead of discarding them following premiere runs, “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” have the capacity to achieve canonical status just as mid-20C masterpieces such as Barber’s “Vanessa,” Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites” and Floyd’s “Susannah” already have done. Phelim McDermott’s productions of “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten” make Phillip Glass look increasingly canonical, and Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” has traveled well—the “standard” repertory catalogue expands, though painfully slow.

Potentially, we’re witnessing a pivotal moment, and while we’ve been treated to an array of valuable contemporary works centering Black characters, Terence Blanchard’s immediate mastery of the art form may be best positioned to stomp a lasting hole in long-closed doors in classical music. Worthiness in an artistic canon derives from the ways in which a work repays repeated close attention. Somehow, yes, I do need to hear Verdi’s “Rigoletto” somewhere every few seasons; “Champion” and “Fire” are every bit as revisitable. Blanchard speaks of admiration for Puccini, whose works audiences happily attend again and again.

Fine Collaborators

Great opera composers have usually enjoyed the aid of fine librettists. Blanchard has collaborated with not one but two, with Michael Cristofer’s text for “Champion” and Kasi Lemmons’ for “Fire.” Astonishingly, some contemporary reviews of the 2013 world premiere at Opera Theatre Saint Louis (OTSL) deprecated “Champion’s” libretto: “banalities and doggerel” and “a bewildering shuffle of scenes,” one reviewer in the Dallas Morning News claimed. I couldn’t agree less. The most enduring works of the operatic stage—or literature, or film, or stage plays—treat fundamental questions about human existence in measure greater than the density of available text. “Champion” performs a difficult trick, which is to offer epigrammatic statements that cut to the heart of the characters’ existences, without sounding preachy or tell-don’t-show. And these flow like water, all evening. Old heads will tut-tut that contemporary works aren’t as hummable upon leaving the theater as Verdi, but one might be hard pressed to name more quotable operas than Blanchard’s two. If you’ve seen “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” I dare you to forget Kasi Lemmons’ line “the South is no place for a boy of peculiar grace.” The showpiece of all these epigrams acts as a précis for the whole opera, and even an advertising tag line for the show: “I killed a man and the world forgives me / I love a man and the world wants to kill me.”

Cristofer’s libretto for “Champion” also achieves what the best [non-comic] opera libretti do with story, rendering a streamlined, uncomplicated plot easily précised in a few sentences, while maximizing opportunities in the drama for expansive exploration of the human condition, grounded in the specific. Librettists often accomplished this with well-worn archetypal forms—”Champion” adheres in its way to the hero’s journey monomyth just as does Wagner’s “Siegfried.”

In a 2000s present, aged boxer Emile Griffith suffers from CTE-type dementia, aided by his companion, Luis. The biographical story unfolds in flashback to Emile’s young adulthood, with older Emile observing and sometimes interacting with younger Emile in ghost-of-Christmas-present fashion, as he leaves the US Virgin Islands for New York, reuniting with his estranged mother Emelda and connecting with Howie, a milliner who moonlights as a boxing trainer. In 1962, the weigh-in for the welterweight world title culminates in an avalanche of homophobic abuse from his opponent, Benny “the Kid” Paret, which effectively outed the real Griffith’s bisexuality to his girlfriend at the time. In this rubber match between the two men, Emile re-wins the title with an onslaught of “seventeen blows in less than seven seconds” which leave Paret in a coma; he soon dies. Act two presents Emile’s inevitable career decline, his marriage, a confrontation with Emelda, his down-low liaisons with men, and a present-day meeting with Luis and Benny Paret Jr. Emile seeks the younger Paret’s absolution for killing his father, which Paret Jr offers. A moving, slightly Broadwayish company number closes the show, uniting characters from all three timelines, paired with Luis and Emile’s return to their living quarters. Whether Emile will remember Benny Jr’s forgiveness is untold.


“Champion’s” Lyric premiere unfolded with a season-opening night degree of visible audience excitement. Its memorable opening scene has stayed with me for a decade from Saint Louis—Emile Griffith struggling cognitively in dealing with his footwear, “This is my shoe.” Blanchard gives an arpeggiated figure to the piano that enacts a soft confusion. In the title role, baritone Reginald Smith Jr gave an evocative performance inconsistent with his youth—New York’s exponent of the role, Eric Owens, is roughly two decades Smith’s senior, and its creator Arthur Woodley has since passed away. After a few early unsteady vocal moments in higher range, Smith sang securely, with the gravitas of an older man. Smith successfully navigated extensive stage business, as old Emile inhabited the stage most of the evening, mirroring little Emile holding a cinder block aloft, interacting with young Emile throughout and with the late Paret in Act two, and even substituting-in physically for a fallen young Emile at the end of a homophobic beating issued by six men. Opera fans tend to complain about this sort of staging when it arises from the stage director mapping it atop a classic work, but it lands entirely differently when planned originally in the libretto. Too, dramas concerned with cognitive decline can veer into portraying the memory care patient pathetic, but Smith positioned Griffth as quietly heroic.

Baritone, or possibly baritenor, Justin Austin possesses a pleasant, sort of rich sand-colored voice that makes you want to hear him in everything. Last year I saw him carry Damien Sneed’s added acts to Joplin’s “Treemonisha” at OTSL, skillfully adjusting his performance through a month-long run, and in a slightly comic turn at the Met as the motorcycle cop who pulls Sister Helen on her way to Angola Prison in “Dead Man Walking.” Another way “Champion” will succeed is that it admits rather different performances in its leading roles—opera fans love comparing oodles of sopranos to each other in Bellini’s “Norma,” so why not various Emile Griffiths? Austin presented a sufficiently strong but less macho Emile, more relatable to genpop than 2023’s Ryan Speedo Green, who couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a welterweight. Ian Rucker’s character Man In Bar towered over Austin in their boozy erotic encounter. The youngest Emile, Lyric debutante Naya Rosalie James, already operates operatically, offering a moving performance in a pants role; she communicated the lifetime of hurt that will follow abuse like little Emile suffers at the hands of Cousin Blanche, who tells him he “has the devil deep inside.” Mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, one of a few singers continuing from the Met run, and possessor of a luscious timbre when singing long-19C rep, scared the hell out of me in her belting two-minute cameo, growling, snapping, and denigrating Little Emile beneath his lofted cinderblock.

Women in Emile’s life were uniformly well cast, and “Champion” does a better job of developing their characters than in most journeys of male protagonists. In 2013, Denyce Graves created the mezzo-soprano role of Emelda, Emile’s mother, but Blanchard has since rewritten Emelda for a soprano of approximately lirico-spinto heft. Chicago native Whitney Morrison played Emelda’s New York reunion with Emile with less sass than Latonia Moore last year and more hurt at her dispossessed circumstances. In Act two, Emelda offers the most lyrical number in the score, a straight-up aria, “Far away long ago,” an exploration of the archetypal connection of water and memory, and death, with haunting legato lines delivered nearly a cappella, over one pizzicato upright bass. Backed by stunning rear-projected visuals of the sea, reminiscent of the art for SZA’s recent album “S.O.S,” Morrison spun a soaring vocal arc with a sound that cut and filled the Civic Opera House’s overlarge auditorium. Though supportive of more job opportunities for low-voiced women in classical music, Emelda’s fach change worked. It’s clear that Blanchard groks opera: sopranos made 19C opera one of the world’s greatest art forms when opera sobered up about the inhumanity of producing castrati—women saved opera—and it’s appropriate that the soprano gets the most operatic four minutes in “Champion,” addressed to Little Emile. Emile’s wife Sadie doesn’t enjoy as much stage time as mom, but soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb caressed the hall with a limpid tone and deep pathos in the Act two quartet, “This night is long,” wishing her husband would come home from the bar, and she weathered with dignity Emile’s overbeveraged meltdown at their wedding reception. Their meet-cute instantly transitioning to a wedding in the staging dramatized the swiftness with which people would marry in an era when median age at first marriage bottomed out at twenty years for American women. Only Lucia Paret was limited to a cameo role, in which Emily Mwila communicated deep concern for her already brain-damaged husband preceding the fatal bout.

The last woman on “Champion’s” roster, Kathy Hagan, operates a bar, “Hagan’s Hole,” an intended safe space for drag queens and other queer patrons, though it’s worth noting Stonewall was still in the future when Griffith became a boxing champion. Let’s address this head on: some negative reactions to this opera are grounded in homophobia and transphobia. Much of the grousing about “Champion” in the comment sections of the Times, or Post, or Facebook Met Live in HD Fans has focused overweeningly on R rated language in the libretto and on [very little] visible skin at Hagan’s Hole, most especially Hagan’s punchline “well fuck me sideways.” Classical 89.7 WCPE in North Carolina cited English cuss words as an excuse to delete all contemporary operas from its schedule of the Met’s Saturday broadcasts this season, before reversing course following an exquisitely civil public upbraiding from Rhiannon Giddens. And, presumably, reconsulting the station’s carriage contract with the Met. Not family friendly, people will say, before positing “Carmen” and “Rigoletto”—domestic violence and misogyny galore depicted, and rape just offstage alluded to—as shows to which an older child could accompany them. Kids aren’t even the point here—apparently content inappropriate for the very young rates as disqualifying even for adults when delivered in English by a gay bar’s owner, but not when delivered in French as part of opera’s long-19C festival of heteronormativity. These are shenanigans. The role’s creator, Meredith Arwady, returned as Kathy Hagan with her for-real contralto voice sounding just as secure as she did as Mascagni’s Mamma Lucia in Saint Louis late last year, flanked by the tallest drag queens around. The Hagan’s Hole scenes prove crucial, in establishing for the contemporary audience the extreme societal erasure of queerness prevalent in the 1960s.

Veteran tenor Paul Groves’ Howie Albert underlined that erasure (“There are things I just don’t wanna hear”) when Emile expressed upset about Paret’s avalanche of epithetic verbal abuse. Though Howie uses Emile to achieve his own dream and get rich, he visibly cares about Emile personally, eventually retiring him at the first sign of mental confusion, and his advice to assume heteronormative and hypermasculine postures counts, heartbreakingly, as genuine concern for Emile rather than personal animus. Groves, making his first return to Lyric since singing Wagner’s Parsifal a decade hence, produces more of a character tenor sound these days, but he made the most of Howie’s big scene, “How does it feel to kill a man,” which exposes the inanity of the omnipresent first question posed to athletes by journalists, and its cruelty in the context of boxing. Groves transmitted Howie’s anguish at failing to prevent Paret’s death, though insisting Paret’s previous fight was the pivotal one. Double cast as Benny Paret and his son Benny Jr, baritone Sankara Harouna made his Lyric debut as a jump-in. He emerged with a powerful voice and a physicality looking like it was he who could quickly fell Griffith. He continued to verbally terrorize old Emile in Emilie’s memory, but metamorphosed into Paret’s gentle son in the forgiveness scene with Emile and tenor Martin Luther Clark’s affable and caring Luis.

Marshaling Expansive Forces

Maestro Enrique Mazzola ably marshaled expansive orchestral forces, the usual, plus Blanchard’s jazz complement of drums, bass trombone, guitar, and organ—this opera requires a lot of people as presently configured, despite its origins at OTSL’s small thrust stage and pit. The singers could be heard more audibly than under Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s conducting in New York. Blanchard does a better job of writing singers audibly than most contemporary composers, who repeatedly situate singers in a low tessitura attempting to compete with Romantically-sized orchestras, but singers have expressed desire for amplification in “Champion” and “Fire.” It was granted only to young Ms James, and Lyric debutant Larry Yando’s speaking role, the boxing announcer. Choreographer Camille A. Brown’s dance numbers transfixed the eye and integrated perfectly with the stage action, whether Carnival revelers in the USVI, title card girls in the boxing ring, bar patrons at Hagan’s Hole, boxers in training scenes, and in a variety of other settings. Opera largely forgot dance after Parisian ballets disappeared, and it could use a lot more. If you’ve spied Brown in the lobby, you’ll also know she conclusively wins the red carpet.

James Robinson’s staging blessed the audience with two and a half hours of beauty and almost unerring theatric intelligence. Allen Moyer’s attractive sets framed the psychology of the drama by locating Emile’s quarters above and behind most downstage action, so that he could observe his past life after a youth of others voyeurizing him. The boxing scenes placed the ring at center stage, and Chuck Coyl’s fight direction repeatedly employed a freeze-frame technique, participants and onlookers forming a tableau vivant, reifying the grotesquerie of audience gaze in boxing. “Champion leans somewhat boxing-skeptical. Donald Holder’s lighting made everyone abundantly visible, and Greg Emetaz’s projections consistently enhanced story, bringing New York City into the opera house, intensifying the action of the fight, lending golden autumn leaves to Emile’s meeting with Benny Jr, and most of all, bathing the audience in Emelda’s deep blue sea. And Montana Levi Blanco’s wardrobe cornucopia furnished dozens of singers and dancers with kaleidoscopic color, fit and finish in the Mad Men era as well as the 2000s present. This brief description simply cannot capture the staging, which the Met has released on their streaming service. It ported seamlessly to Chicago.

“Champion” and “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” might remind one of the relation between Guillermo Del Toro’s pair of cinematic masterpieces “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) and “The Shape Of Water” (2017), which despite differing surface characteristics, tell the same story, structurally. If you’re familiar with those films, you’ll know that in the latter film, Baltimore replaces Spain, the Cold War replaces the Spanish Civil War, the sadistic Colonel Strickland replaces Falangist captain Vidal, the doctor replaces the doctor, Octavia Spencer’s character replaces Maribel Verdú’s as the child/childlike protagonist’s helper, and that fearless femme protagonist unites the material and spirit worlds with the creature, still played by Doug Jones. The two movies tell such richly mythic stories that the structural formula absolutely warranted revisitation. So too, “Champion” and “Fire.” A neglected Black male protagonist, abused in a southerly childhood, undergoes the hero’s journey, seeking knowledge from men senior to him (Howie/fraternity brothers at Grambling) and from a woman (Sadie/Greta-Destiny). He wrestles throughout with questions of identity, “What makes a man a man?”; he questions whether a person’s memories are the sum of that person.

Will Terence Blanchard’s third opera, currently in development, occupy a similar arena, or light out for distinct territory? One must be eager to see. He’s already furnished us with as many canon-worthy operas as did Georges Bizet.


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