Terence Blanchard's 'Champion' finds conflict in and out of the ring
Champion, an opera by Terence Blanchard, airs this Saturday at 1 p.m. as part of the Toll Brothers–Metropolitan Opera Saturday Matinee Radio Broadcasts on WRTI.
There’s a devastating mano a mano confrontation at the heart of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, and it might not be the one that you expect. On its face, the opera is about an infamous bout in boxing history, on March 24, 1962, when Emile Griffith became welterweight champion of the world by beating Benny Paret senseless.
The fight was fraught with back story, as some knew even at the time. During their morning weigh-in, Paret had insulted Griffith with a homophobic slur in Spanish slang. “It is the most vulgar epithet in that violent idiom,” wrote a Sports Illustrated reporter barely a week after the fight, “and is particularly galling to Griffith, who has a piping voice, wears extravagantly tight clothes, has designed women's hats and is, ordinarily, a charming, affectionate kid.”
Champion — Blanchard’s first operatic work, first presented a decade ago by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and refurbished as a centerpiece of The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-23 season — marshals extravagant resources to translate Paret vs. Griffith into a musical set piece. The bout functions as an Act I climax, a spectacular but dreaded denouement. Ryan Speedo Green, as young Griffith, and Eric Greene, as Paret, circle each other with credible force and finesse as Blanchard’s score highlights the terrible thrill unfolding in the ring, a stage within a stage: in a movement titled “Seventeen Blows,” the orchestra lurches from peak to peak in a breathless 5/4 meter.
In Champion, Griffith’s moment of triumph is immediately understood as a tragedy. The Met Opera’s stage design centers not only the boxing ring but also a Hempstead, Long Island bedroom around the turn of this century, where an older version of Griffith, played by Eric Owens, agonizes over his past through a fog of dementia. “In my head, it happens fast,” he sings, in a stentorian yet vulnerable bass-baritone. “Something good turns into something that don’t last. Something good turns into something bad so fast.”
Owens — a distinguished alumnus of Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance as well as the Curtis Institute of Music, where he serves as Director of Vocal Studies — brings a deep, grounding melancholy to his role. Champion opens on the elder Griffith in his bedroom, wrestling with his own quotidian confusion. His caretaker, Luis, enters to tenderly remind him about an in-person meeting with Paret’s son, Benny Paret, Jr. From the start, Blanchard and his librettist, Michael Cristofer, are leaning into the reverberating consequences of personal history.
The opera delves into that history with brisk efficiency, showing us Emile’s upbringing in St. Thomas. As a small boy, portrayed by Ethan Joseph, he endured the abusive treatment of a cousin, who forced him to stand in place holding cinder blocks above his head — a punishment that unwittingly forged his fighter’s physique. As a young man, Griffith pines for the mother he never knew, and decides to seek her out in New York. Blanchard illuminates the moment, and its island setting, with music rooted in Afro-Caribbean clave; in the pit, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts propels an all-star rhythm section, alongside guitarist Adam Rogers and bassist Matt Brewer.
Because of Blanchard’s prominent stature as a jazz artist, the natural assumption would be that he brings the language of that idiom into an operatic frame. That’s truer of Champion than it is of Fire Shut Up in My Bones — the epic work with which Blanchard made history in 2021, becoming the first Black composer to present a work at The Met. There are moments in Champion when the rhythm section muscles down, or revs up, in the mode of Afro-Diasporic polyrhythm: “Gonna drive a fast car,” for example, finds Young Emile spiraling into self-hating hedonism against a modish, Lalo Schifrin-esque score in locomotive swing time. (A seasoned listener will easily discern the hand of “Tain” within the churn.)
There are also flashes of neo-burlesque, mainly at the gay bar where Griffith finds a semblance of community, along with a fresh source of self-loathing. (Stephanie Blythe, as bar owner Kathy Hagen, sings a blues aria with a deliciously vulgar opening line.) A preceding scene in a boxing gym, where Young Emile first learns the ropes, is set to a syncopated second-line drumbeat, which resurfaces during his Act II wedding to a woman named Sadie (played by Brittany Renee) — another instance where Griffith seems propelled into a commitment that he tries to convince himself is the right one.
The Met Opera has not typically been a place to experience this sort of groove, and it should be noted that Yannick Nézet-Séguin balanced the complex needs of the orchestra with striking aplomb. But as in Fire, Blanchard also proves himself a true student of the grand operatic tradition, favoring strong melodies that swoon and glide, and orchestration that conceals a dark glimmer at the heart of a lustrous glow. One of the most stunning musical moments in Champion involves Griffith’s wayward yet caring mother, Emelda; the soprano Latonia Moore sings this Act II aria with pathos and quiet power, accompanied only by Brewer’s sparsely empathic bass line. Another such moment is “What Makes a Man a Man,” a Puccini-esque aria that Green sings in Act I, on the cusp of Griffith’s fateful assignation with Paret.
The lyrics to this aria begin with a meditation on the heart, and its connections to both lifeblood and essence. “It makes you strong inside — or does it make you weak?” Green sings, wrestling with his own uncertainty, and what you might call a divided self. Then he makes the rift explicit, contrasting “inside” and “outside,” and clearly finding himself stranded somewhere in between. Elsewhere in the opera, there are moments when Young Emile and Old Emile inhabit the same scene, one voicing a rejoinder to the other. Yet the greatest conflict Griffith faces in Champion can’t be charted along a timeline, but rather contained (if only barely) within. He sings:
And somewhere there, where love is living
There is a man who is the man I am inside
The man I am.
And outside? Outside?
This man, that all this world can see
Who is this man?
Who is this man who calls himself me?
Green stretches his bass-baritone range to hit a high F on that final, meaningful word, sustaining it with a demeanor that’s the farthest thing from exultant. The torment faced by Griffith in that moment is fully expressed in musical form, just as it’s embodied onstage. This is the great achievement of Champion — a tragedy that asks nothing more or less of its audience than empathy.