Last night, the Metropolitan Opera staged Champion, a work composed by Terence Blanchard. Champion had its premiere in St. Louis in 2013. Last season, the Met staged another Blanchard opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
As the title may suggest, Champion is about a boxer—a real-life boxer, Emile Griffith, who lived from 1938 to 2013. Met publicity describes the title character as a “closeted young hatmaker-turned-prizefighter, who rises from obscurity to become world champion and, in one of the great tragedies in sports history, kills his homophobic archrival in the ring.”
The house was packed last night, having the air of an occasion. The air was festive too, with the audience festively dressed. New Year’s Eve has nothing on last night.
Met publicity calls Terence Blanchard “a celebrated composer whose many works express his roots in jazz but defy further categorization.” Writing about Fire Shut Up in My Bones in November 2021, I said,
The score has standard American neo-Romanticism, found in many contemporary operas. It also has jazz, blues, gospel, pop, funk, and more. The score is earnest and competent. Does it tickle your fancy, engage your interest, touch your heart, stick to your ribs? That depends on you, of course.
Much the same can be said of Champion. I trust that the score held the interest of others more than it did mine. What is undeniable is that the score is full of sympathy—sympathy for the characters and the story at large. It also demonstrates a range of American musics.
“Musics” is one of my least favorite words—in fact, I can hardly credit it as a word—but there you go.
The libretto of Champion is by Michael Cristofer, who in 1977 won a Pulitzer prize and a Tony award for his play The Shadow Box (which does not have to do with boxing). The libretto is, among other things, rhyme-happy, which pleases those of us made happy by rhyme: “missed,” “kissed,” “gist”; “agility,” “stability,” “virility”; etc.
One striking line is, “How come the press don’t write what’s right?” I also thought I heard an homage to the Fats Waller song “Black and Blue.” (That song goes, “What did I do to be so black and blue?”)
Champion’s production is in the care of James Robinson, and it is full of appeal—particularly the visual. The show is ever colorful and interesting. The choreography of Camille A. Brown is a tasty ingredient. (Incidentally, no one was more elegantly or snazzily dressed than Ms. Brown, who glittered in gold.)
Last night’s performance was very well sung, acted, played, danced. Not one but two singers portray the champion: one is Griffith in older life, suffering from dementia pugilistica, and the other is Griffith in his prime. The older Griffith flashes back, throughout.
Griffith in his prime was portrayed by Ryan Speedo Green, the bass-baritone. For the role, he got his body into boxing shape, which is an achievement in itself. He sang and acted with charisma. The older Griffith was portrayed by another bass-baritone, Eric Owens, who evinced two of his usual qualities: gravitas and pathos. What a beautiful instrument he owns.
There is a third Emile Griffith, actually—the child Emile, who was sung by Ethan Joseph: winsome and bold. At the end of the night, he received one of the loudest ovations.
The soprano Latonia Moore sang Emelda Griffith, Emile’s ne’er-do-well mother. (Are women ever described as “ne’er-do-well”? This one should be.) She sang lustrously and lusciously, as usual. Blanchard gives Emelda an extended, bluesy soliloquy, accompanied by double bass.
For many years now, Stephanie Blythe has been stealin’ shows, or certainly stealin’ scenes: which she did last night as Kathy Hagen, the owner of a gay bar. Kathy begins her big number, “Well, fuck me sideways”—a line Ms. Blythe was virtually born to sing.
Champion’s is a cast of thousands (or fifteen, to be specific). I will mention just a few more members. Brittany Renee, a soprano, sang Griffith’s wife. (There is one.) A beautiful singer, she is. The tenor Chauncey Packer was Luis, Griffith’s adopted son. There was a hint of the valiant in his singing.
The opera includes a significant non-singing role: the Ring Announcer, who also serves as a kind of narrator. This role was filled by the veteran actor Lee Wilkof: canny. Here is a man who knows how to use his voice (and can dance, to boot).
Leading all this in the pit was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Met. He has an important quality for a conductor: he conducts whatever work is before him with tender loving care. He gives it his all. Let me note, too, that this kid from Quebec can swing a little, American-style.
When it comes time to bow, the singer in the title role bows last. That is the convention in an opera house. But Ryan Speedo Green and Eric Owens were equals in this show. What would happen? They emerged from the wings simultaneously: one from one wing, the other from the other. I had never seen this in an opera house before. The word for this is “Solomonic.”