Opera Profile: ‘Champion,’ Terrence Blanchard & Michael Cristofer’s ‘Opera in Jazz’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Ken Howard)

Terrence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s “Champion” is termed an “opera in jazz,” a unique choice of words.

There are a lot of operas in the history of the artform that have gone under the designation of “jazz opera,” but the choice here speaks to Blanchard’s decision to use the full range of jazz expression in the context of opera.

As one critic said on the occasion of its San Francisco premiere, “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.” Even the opera’s own narrative structure plays up this idea.

The opera had its world premiere on June 15, 2013 at the Loretto-Hilton Center for Performing Arts in a joint commission by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis. The cast on that occasion included Denyce Graves, Arthur Woodley, Aubrey Allicock, Robert Orth, and Meredith Arwady, among others.

From there, the work has appeared at Opera Parallèle in San Francisco and the Washington National Opera.

Short Plot Synopsis

The opera starts in Hempstead Long Island where Emile Griffith, suffering from dementia, starts remember his past.

The opera jumps back to the 1950s with Emile as a young man in St. Thomas. He moves to New York to seek out his mother, who moved to the U.S. He meets up with her and she takes him to work for a hat manufacturer named Howie.

Howie trains Emile to be a prizefighter. Despite finding success, Emile finds himself lonely and walks into a gay bar in Manhattan. He reveals some of the demons of his past to the bar owner Kathy.

In 1962, he meets Benny Paret who taunts him during a weigh-in for their upcoming fight and calls him a “maricon.” While Emile tries to talk through his problems with Howie, he finds himself rebuked and alone. During the fight he puts Benny in a coma after just seven seconds.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, Emile is on top of the world.  He tries to conform to the expectations people have of him as a boxer and gets married even though others warn him against it.

In the 1970s, he finds himself on a downward spiral, with dementia setting in. He rejects the comfort of those around him and returns to Kathy’s bar where he winds up beaten up, his brain injuries increased.

The opera concludes in the present where Emile struggles with the trauma of the attack and the death of Paret. He asks for forgiveness to Benny Jr. and reveals his inability to find peace since that day. When he returns home, the memories and voices he has been hearing disappear.

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