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Champion - Opera
Champion opera premiered in June 2013 with a libretto by Michael Cristofer and music by Terence Blanchard. The opera was jointly commissioned by Jazz St. Louis and the Opera Theater of Saint Louis (OTSL). It is based on the life story of Emile Griffith, an African-American boxer with world titles in three divisions.
The premiere was at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts in St. Louis, while the second production had a revised orchestra by Blanchard in 2016. This was in collaboration with the SFJAZZ center. The third production was in 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by Washington National Opera (WNO).
Background Information and Summary
Champion opera is divided into two acts. The first premiere had favorable reviews. Many critics pointed out the similarities between the events that happened decades ago with the then-events, which saw a rise in violence against gay people in the US. The second premiere also had similar and positive reviews, with Blanchard getting a special mention for presenting Champion as an opera in jazz rather than a jazz opera. The third version seemed a little predictable, though reviews pointed out that the plot had a few fresh perspectives.
The opera begins with Emile Griffith struggling to undress in his apartment in Hempstead. His dementia is troubling and confusing him between the past and the present. At this point, the flashback begins in the late 1950s when he was a young man searching for his mother, Emelda.
Emile moves from the US Virgin Islands to New York. He finds his mother, who takes him to Howie Albert, a hat manufacturer. Albert sees potential in Emile as a boxer and trains him for prizefighting. Emile has no option but to forgo his dreams of becoming a singer and a baseball player.
The opera moves on to Emile’s visit to a gay bar, his friendship with Kathy, the bar’s owner, and his troubled childhood. It takes us through the subsequent years- Emile’s ring fight with Benny Paret in 1962, where Paret taunts him for being a homosexual. Albert leaves Emile to fend for himself after the revelation. Then the story progresses to Emile’s success in the 1960s, his marriage to Sadie, a young woman, and his downfall due to continuous losses in the ring. The opera ends with Emile’s dementia being diagnosed and how he asks his son for forgiveness in the present time.