December 15, 2023
Get to know: Blanchard's CHAMPION
"I killed a man and the world forgave me, yet I loved a man and the world wants to kill me."
One of the most troubled figures in the history of American boxing, Emile Griffith wrote those words years after the event that scarred him for life. Composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Michael Cristofer were inspired by Griffith's life to create their "opera in jazz," Champion, which marked Blanchard's triumphant operatic debut a decade ago. Now in 2023/24, Lyric — following up on its huge success with Blanchard's second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones — is presenting the eagerly anticipated Chicago premiere of Champion. It promises to be one of the most exciting events of the city's musical season.
At home in the Virgin Islands, the young Emile hopes for a career as a milliner. He pursues his dream in New York City, until his unexpected talent for boxing is discovered. He achieves one spectacular success after another, but he's confused and tormented by his bisexuality, at a time when no major figure in the world of sports was comfortable coming out. At a weigh-in, Emile is stunned when his brash opponent, Benny "Kid" Paret, repeatedly mocks him with gay epithets. During the fight, Emile's anger explodes. He knocks Benny out to win the fight, but the blows are so intense that Benny dies shortly thereafter, a catastrophe from which the distraught and guilt-ridden Emile never recovers. Throughout the opera, Emile, grown old and suffering from dementia, comments on the actions and feelings of his younger self.
At the acclaimed premiere in St. Louis a decade ago, Opera magazine hailed Champion, noting that Blanchard's remarkable score "astutely mixes a neo-Romantic idiom with sophisticated jazz elements in such a manner that it sounds entirely at home in the opera house," and "James Robinson's zesty production contributed to the evening's fast pace but is also mindful of the opera's emotional core." At the Metropolitan Opera's company premiere in 2023, Cristofer was praised by Opera for his "masterly" libretto, as was Camille A. Brown for the "striking energy" of her innovative choreography.
Lyric's brilliant music director, Enrique Mazzola, will demonstrate his affinity for contemporary opera on the podium. He'll conduct an extraordinary cast, including Reginald Smith, Jr as the older Emile and playing Emile in his prime is a wonderfully warm-voiced, exceptionally charismatic young baritone, Justin Austin. Audiences will remember their memorable performances in last season's Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Joining them are two Ryan Opera Center alumnae who have developed wonderful careers: the radiant soprano Whitney Morrison, who deeply moved Lyric audiences in Dead Man Walking and Proximity, now singing Emelda, Emile's neglectful, ambitious mother; and the formidable contralto Meredith Arwady, who plays the earthy, bawdy bar-owner, Kathy Hagen.
Experience Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer's moving "opera in jazz" at Lyric, January 27 through February 11.