NEW YORK — “I killed a man, and the world forgave me. I loved a man, and the world wants to kill me.“ So sings the aging Emile Griffith, a champion boxer haunted for decades after having fatally knocked out an opponent who had taunted him with a homosexual slur. Identity and forgiveness are the themes at the heart of Champion, Terence Blanchard’s first opera, which premiered in 2013 at the Opera Theater of St. Louis.
Like Blanchard’s Fire Shut up in My Bones, which was a success last season at the Metropolitan Opera and returns next season, his first opera deals with issues of memory, identity, trauma, healing, and forgiveness set to a hybrid jazz-classical score and clothed in a vibrant and eye-popping production. While Champion, despite major revisions, musically still bears the earmarks of an early work, spectacular staging and fine performances made for an exhilarating evening April 10 at the work’s Met debut.
Boxing — the codified art and science of pummeling an opponent with one’s fists — is an ancient sport. While an unconventional subject for an opera, boxing once was widely enjoyed by a broad audience in the U.S., and much ink has been spilled analyzing the so-called “Sweet Science.“ Boxing’s widespread appeal began to decline with the rise of closed-circuit and pay-per-view matches, though names like Sugar Ray Robinson, Mike Tyson, Rocky Marciano, George Forman, and Muhammad Ali endure in sports legend and popular cultural history.
Emile Griffith, discovered in the late 50s by his boss at the hat factory where he first found work in New York, was regarded as a great boxing talent, but his 1962 championship bout with Benny “Kid“ Paret was tainted by the knockout 12th round that led to Paret’s death 10 days later (the fight is on YouTube). Griffith was haunted for the rest of his life for having killed a man, albeit without meaning to, as he tried to reckon with this event and also with his own sexuality. Griffith died in a nursing home on Long Island just six weeks after Champion’s St. Louis premiere. The opera retraces his life, highlighting significant events and relationships, as well as his decline, each introduced by a reminiscence by the old fighter.
This production took advantage of the Met’s vast stage, placing action on two levels and using the stage’s back wall and side panels for still and video projections. The opera opens with the elderly Griffith (Eric Owens), suffering from dementia and confined to a small room in the facility, the building’s drab exterior projected onto the flat panels. As Griffith remembers his earliest years, the building image fades into a bright tropical island postcard, the room recedes, and dozens of colorfully dressed revelers fill both levels of the stage, singing and dancing. As young Emile (Ryan Speedo Green) shares his dreams and packs his bags, the tropical sun fades into the darkness of a New York City street at night where Emile encounters his neglectful mother. She brings her child (one of seven abandoned offspring) to the hat factory floor, where Emile’s boss (Paul Groves) discovers his new employee’s athletic potential.
Fluid scene changes drove the momentum of the biopic narrative through to the fateful fight, flashing back to the older fighter as pivotal memories emerge. With the climactic fight falling just before intermission, the second act loses some energy, as the narrative traverses the trickier terrain of professional decline and an unresolved inner life (co-direction by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, sets by Allen Moyer, lighting by Donald Holder, projections by Greg Emetaz).
As in Fire, Brown’s dynamic choreography provided an irresistible spark. Whether carnival-clad locals celebrating at an island festival, transvestites bumping and grinding in a gay bar, go-go girls gyrating over a fight victory, or boxers training in sync at a gym, the dancers’ propulsive energy brought the narrative to life. Fight scenes utilized stop-sequence action and dramatic lighting to convey the excitement of a fight without graphic violence.
Blanchard’s hybrid musical language reflects his mixed experience as a jazz trumpeter and composer, as well as a creator of film scores. High energy or suspenseful action was often underlaid with a spare and driving rhythmic ostinato (the program credits a four-piece rhythm section), while contemplative vocal solos incorporated strings, even harp, in a more lush, movie-music style. Much of the vocal writing was a-melodic, circling a pitch to clearly deliver Michael Cristofer’s efficient, no-holds-barred libretto — this may be the first opera to make lavish use of the f-word. Each character had at least one extended soliloquy, though these solos were rarely melodic enough to call them arias. Repetition made for some longueurs, especially toward the end, but the production propelled things along.
While it’s hardly fair to evaluate voices from an acoustically compromised seat, the singers seemed generally strong and their characterizations well drawn. Owens was a sympathetic Old Emile, retaining his dignity through the fog of “boxer brain.“ Bass-baritone Green’s star continues to rise, and Ethan Joseph as the child Emile sang with impressive projection — a budding talent to watch. Chauncy Packer (fresh from a Met run as Pistola in Falstaff) as Emile’s nursing home aide was noteworthy. Stephanie Blythe as the salty owner of a gay bar relished her tough character. Smaller roles were evenly supportive. Only Latonia Moore, dramatically persuasive as Emile’s sassy, lost mother, seemed oddly miscast in a role that didn’t quite fit her Aida-scale soprano. The lively Met chorus, dancers, and actors punched well above their weight in bringing this story to life. Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin effectively corralled the divergent musical styles, maintaining energy and assuring that the singers remained audible.
Performances of Champion continue through May 13. To buy tickets, go here. Champion will be shown live in cinemas on April 29. To find a theater, go here.