“I keep thinking how strange it is… I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin.”
Music by Terence Blanchard
Libretto by Michael Cristofer
Champion: An Opera in Jazz, in 2 Acts and 10 scenes was co-commissioned by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz Saint Louis, first performed in June 2013. A groundbreaking work combining the disciplines of opera and jazz, Terence Blanchard’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz (2013) tells the real-life story of world champion boxer Emile Griffith, a man haunted by memories of his past who struggled to reconcile his sexuality in a hyper-macho world. Co-produced by Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ, Champion’s visually stunning production features full staging and video elements with soloists, a jazz trio, orchestra and Gospel chorus, bringing out the full glory of Blanchard’s soulful score as it illuminates Griffith’s triumphs and struggles, which are still broadly and powerfully relevant today.
Tormented by the death of opponent Benny Paret following their 1962 bout for the welterweight title, Griffith spent his life questioning himself and a society that would accept his accidental killing of a fellow athlete, but not his bisexuality. The opera features a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer and premiered to widespread critical acclaim at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June 2013, even becoming one of five finalists for the International Opera Award in 2014.
Read the reviews of Opera Parallèle’s production at SFJAZZ HERE!
Emile Griffith: Arthur Woodley
Young Emile Griffith: Kenneth Kellogg
Little Emile Griffith: Moses Abrahamson/ Evan Holloway
Emelda Griffith: Karen Slack
Howie Albert: Robert Orth
Kathy Hagan: Michelle Rice
Benny ‘Kid’ Paret: Victor Ryan Robertson
Luis Rodrigo Griffith: Andres Ramirez
Sadie Donastrog Griffith: Chabrelle Williams
Cousin Blanche: Aisha Campbell
Ring Announcer: Mark Hernandez
Man in a Bar: Bradley Kynard
Speed Bag Performer: Joe Orrach
Real artists are originals who have a calling. The majority of people in the music world are often mere marketing confections or showcase acts, but not real artists. Acts can have hits, but usually their time in the spotlight is short-lived. Real artists have a vision and follow it for the long term, creatively expressing themselves in abundance.
Witness Terence Blanchard who early on made a name for himself as a top-tier jazz trumpeter who has gone on to enjoy a multifaceted career both in the jazz camp and beyond. He’s not only a four-time Grammy Award winner, but he’s also established himself as one of the most influential jazz musicians and film score masters of his generation, a member of a jazz legacy that has shaped the contours of modern jazz today. With more than 30 albums to his credit, as a musician Blanchard is a multi-Grammy Award winner and nominee.
As a film composer, Blanchard has more than 50 scores to his credit, most recently, Kevin Costner’s Black or White. He received a Golden Globe nomination for Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Other film music written by Blanchard include Oprah Winfrey’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tim Story’s Barbershop and George Lucas’ Red Tails. Add to those achievements Blanchard’s recent success composing for Broadway (including the score for the world premiere of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker With a Hat starring Chris Rock and Bobby Canavales and the Emily Mann-directed Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire; his first opera commissioned by Opera St. Louis Champion (a poignant tale of welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith with librettist Michael Cristofer); a speaking role as the musical voice of Louis the Alligator in the Disney-animated feature The Princess and the Frog; becoming the artistic director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s jazz series; and after serving as the artistic director of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz for a decade since 2000, being named in 2015 artist in residence at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where Blanchard works with students in the areas of artistic development, arranging, and composition. He also participates in master classes around the world as well as local community outreach activities in his beloved hometown of New Orleans.
Blanchard concedes that he’s very busy these days, but adds, “I’m blessed.”
COMMENTS FROM TERENCE BLANCHARD
EMILE GRIFFITH – THE STORY
“How can you possibly be the same? How can a man endure the trauma of killing another while being told that nothing had changed?”
Click HERE to read more of the NYTimes article “Junior, The Kid, The Fight” by Dan Klores, written on the 50 year anniversary of Benny ‘The Kid’ Paret’s death.
Read an article about the documentary “Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story” and hear tidbits from producer and co-director Dan Klores. Click HERE to read the ESPN article by Michael Woods.
Scene 1 begins in Emile’s apartment in Hempstead, Long Island; Emile Griffith is struggling to get dressed. Suffering from dementia, he is confused and haunted by his past. Luis, his adopted son and caretaker, reminds him to be ready for an important meeting with Benny Paret, Jr.
Late 1950’s, Emile is a young man again in St. Thomas, the US Virgin Islands. He yearns to find his mother, Emelda, and make it big in America as a singer, a baseball player, and a designer of hats. Emile moves to New York. When he finds his mother, she is confused, not sure which of her seven abandoned children he is, but overjoyed. Hoping to find Emile a job, she takes him to meet Howie Albert, a hat manufacturer. Howie sees an opportunity: Emile is built like a boxer not a hat-maker, and he sets his sights on training Emile as a fighter. Giving up his other dreams, Emile quickly develops into a talented welterweight. Lonely and confused by his success, Emile finds his way to a gay bar in Manhattan. Kathy Hagan, the owner, welcomes Emile to a world that frightens and attracts him. Emile confides in Kathy, revealing some demons from his past. As a boy, his cruel fundamentalist cousin Blanche forced him to hold cinderblocks above his head as punishment for having the devil inside him, a punishment that made him into a man of great physical strength.
1962, Emile encounters Benny Paret at a weigh-in for their upcoming fight. Kid Paret taunts the charismatic Emile, calling him “maricon,” a disparaging Spanish word for a homosexual. Alone with Howie, Emile tries to talk to him frankly about why this word hurt him so deeply, but for Howie this is something that no one in the fight business wants to talk about. Howie leaves him and Emile wonders what it means to be a man. Emile and Paret prepare for the big fight. Paret continues to taunt Emile, who ultimately delivers seventeen blows in less that seven seconds and knocks Paret into a coma.
Back in Emile’s bedroom in the present, Emile is haunted by the ghost of Kid Paret who still questions his old opponent.
Mid- to late 1960s, Emile is enjoying a strong winning streak all over the world. Titles, trophies, and money roll in, but he remains disturbed by the death of Kid Paret. He tries living it up, and, denying his own identity, he takes a young bride, Sadie, although everyone including his mother Emelda, who remembers her own childhood back in the Islands, warns him against it.
Early 1970s, after the wedding, Emile’s luck seems to have changed. He’s now on a long losing streak and starting to display signs of “boxer’s brain,” or trauma-related dementia. Howie realizes that Emile’s days are numbered and tries to console him, but Emile rejects Howie, as well as his wife and his mother. Instead, he looks for comfort back at Kathy’s bar. Outside in the street, he is taunted by a group of thugs. They beat him violently, exacerbating his brain injuries.
Back in the present, Emile relives the nightmare of the attack. Luis tries to comfort him. “That was long ago,” says Luis. In a New York City park, Emile asks for forgiveness from Benny Jr. Luis tells Benny that since that terrible evening Emile has struggled to find peace with what he’s done and who he truly is. Back at home, the voices and memories subside. Emile Griffith, the former welterweight champ, can now take life one day at a time.
ARTHUR WOODLEY (BASS): EMILE GRIFFITH, has been acclaimed for his performances in both opera and concert. He has appeared at the Seattle Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Dallas Opera, Cincinnati Opera, San Francisco Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Portland Opera, and the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. His many roles include Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Varlaam in Boris Godunov, Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro, the Four Villains in Les Contes d’Hoffman, Banquo in Macbeth, Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress, Sulpice in La Fille du Régiment, Colline in La Bohème, Leporello in Don Giovanni, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rocco in Fidelio, and Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Also a distinguished concert singer, he has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, New World Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Houston Symphony, Collegiate Chorale, and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Mr. Woodley originated the role of Emile Griffith in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
KAREN SLACK (SOPRANO): EMELDA GRIFFITH, EMILE’S MOTHER, possessing a voice of extraordinary beauty and great dramatic depth, Karen Slack recently sang Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking with Madison Opera and Des Moines Metro Opera, Serena in Porgy and Bess with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Quad City Symphony, and Tosca with the New Philharmonic. Engagements for 2015 and beyond include Verdi’s Aïda with Austin Lyric Opera, her role debut as Alice Ford in Falstaff with Arizona Opera, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony with the Lexington Philharmonic, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Back Bay Chorale. Ms. Slack made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Other highlights include Tosca and Leonora (Il trovatore) with Arizona Opera, the role of Cilla in Richard Danielpour’s American opera Margaret Garner with Michigan Opera Theater, and Serena in Porgy and Bess with both Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera.
ROBERT ORTH (BARITONE): HOWIE ALBERT has sung 135 roles in London, Berlin, Rome, New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Washington, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, Portland, Cincinnati, Denver, and more. He was named “Artist of the Year” by both New York City Opera and Seattle Opera. Hailed by Opera News as a “fixture of contemporary opera,” Robert Orth has participated in the world premieres and major revivals of: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick, John Adams’s Nixon in China, Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath, Terence Blanchard’s Champion, Dominic Argento’s A Waterbird Talk, Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke, and Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow. He created the title role in Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie for Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera. He has appeared as a soloist with symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Europe. With Nicole Paiement, Orth has collaborated on Machover’s Death and the Powers and Dead Man Walking, and twice on Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse when he returns in Opera Parallèle’s production in April at Z Space.
MICHELLE RICE (MEZZO-SOPRANO): KATHY HAGAN sang the Mother (Amahl) with Monterey Symphony and Livermore Valley Opera, Emilia (Otello) with West Bay Opera and Festival Opera, and Maria in Opera Parallèle’s reading of Gesualdo. She has performed with Opera San José, Fresno Grand Opera, Annapolis Opera, and Opera Cleveland in roles such as Antonia’s Mother (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Mercedes (Carmen), Suzuki (Madama Butterfly) and the Witch/Mother (Hansel and Gretel). Ms. Rice also frequently performs as a concert soloist, most recently in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Houston Camerata. Future engagements include Azucena (Il trovatore) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
CHABRELLE WILLIAMS (SOPRANO): SADIE DONASTROG GRIFFITH, the first Artist Diploma in Opera graduate of Rice University most recently performed the title role in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Other performances of note include Elle in La voix humaine and La Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro. Ms. Williams made her debut at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, creating the roles of Cousin Blanche and Sadie Griffith in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion. While working on her master’s in Cincinnati, Ms. Williams also performed the roles of Annie in Porgy and Bess with the Cincinnati Opera and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte,. Ms. Williams received her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin Conservatory. While there she performed the roles of Marenka in The Bartered Bride, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Pamina in The Magic Flute.
BRADLEY KYNARD (BARITONE): MAN IN A BAR is thrilled to make his debut with Opera Parallèle. Recently, Mr. Kynard premiered the role of Lazarus (Voyage of Mary Magdalene) and made his San Francisco Opera debut as Daggoo in Moby Dick. Previous roles include Peter (Hansel and Gretel) with Solo Opera, Alfio (Cavalleria Rusticana), Remendado (Carmen), and Lord Cecil (Roberto Devereux) with Pocket Opera. Other engagements include Marchese d’Obiny (La Traviata) with Opera San Jose, Chirurgo (La Forza del destino) with West Bay Opera, and Robbins (Porgy and Bess) with Mendocino Music Festival. Upcoming engagements include Prince Yamadori (Madama Butterfly) with Livermore Valley Opera and Schaunard (La Bohème) with Island City Opera. Mr. Kynard has performed with the San Francisco Opera chorus for the past eight seasons.
conductor with the Washington National Opera and the Saratoga Summer Festival. She will be conducting at Glimmerglass Opera this summer and at the Atlanta Opera in Fall 2016.