Debut Opera “Champion” Has a Powerful Story To Tell

 In Culture

“Champion,” a co-commission of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis, centers around the life events of reluctant boxing prizefighter Emile Griffith. The new work combines the fresh, modern sounds of jazz with the gravity of opera and is an amalgamation of talent from individuals who are considered powerhouses in their genre.

The opera is scored by five-time Grammy Award-winning Terence Blanchard, who is also a friend of Jazz St. Louis. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer penned the libretto for the project. The cast boasts the voices of  mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Griffith’s mother, Arthur Woodly as Griffith and American opera veteran Robert Orth as trainer Howie Albert. “Champion” is directed by James Robinson and conducted by George Manahan.

“Champion,” courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The story of Emile Griffith is a compelling and tragic one. Griffith became a boxing champion during the 1950s with a career lasting into the 70s—winning multiple world titles in both the welterweight and middleweight classes. The zenith of his career would prove to be its undermining, when in 1962 he faced Benny “The Kid” Paret to recover his title of world champion. Before this anticipated and televised match, Paret publicly referred to Griffith as a gay man by using a derogatory slur. During the fight, Griffith delivered 17 blows to Paret in seven seconds, sending Paret into a coma which would claim his life 10 days later. The death of Paret haunted Griffith for decades, and the story culminates in a meeting between Griffith and Peret’s son, Benny Jr. years later, who forgives the aging boxer for the death of his father, just as Griffith is starting to suffer from dementia.

When jazz composer Terence Blanchard learned of this dramatic narrative, he “was drawn to tell Emile’s story through music . . . I knew there was no other way to tell this story but through the unique power of opera.” Griffith, who was once nearly killed by a gang outside of a gay bar in New York, struggled with his sexuality in the macho world of prize fighting. Playwright Michael Cristofer eloquently comments on the project, explaining “’Champion’ is the story of a man struggling to make peace with himself and to find his place in the world. . . as a fighter and a gay man. It’s the story of courage in the face of sexual oppression, of love in the face of hate, of grace in the face of physical and mental decline. For me, Emile’s story not only asks the question of what it means to be a man. It asks what it means to be a human being.”

Opera Theatre Saint Louis’ “Champion” will be performed, directed and musically accompanied by an award-winning cast and crew and is one of the most highly anticipated theater events of the summer.

“Champion” will present its world premiere at Opera Theatre Saint Louis from June 15-30, with future performances on June 19, 21, 25, 27 and 30.  Tickets range from $25-120.  Further details are available at OTSL.


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