Story: Emile Alphonse Griffith, a young man from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, arrives in New York City in the mid-1950s with a dream of being a singer and a baseball player and a hat designer. He loves doing all three and has faith in his abilities to excel.
He also hopes to find his mother Emelda, who abandoned him and his six siblings years earlier, disposing of them at homes of various relatives and friends. When he makes connections with Emelda, she gets him a job at a hat factory run by a former amateur boxer, Howie Albert. Albert convinces Emile to take up boxing, and soon the gifted young man is fighting his way up the ranks in Gotham.
Eventually he gets a bout against Benny “Kid” Paret for the welterweight championship. After an ugly weigh-in at which Paret calls Griffith a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual, Albert advises Griffith to save his anger for the ring. At the nationally televised bout, Griffith pummels Paret savagely in the 12th round until the latter falls in a heap. Ten days later Paret dies.
Griffith goes on to win 86 fights and to become inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame. Forty years after his fateful 1962 bout with Paret, the ailing ex-boxer, suffering from dementia, is finally given the opportunity to meet Paret’s son and ask forgiveness.
Highlights: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis surely will see its star shine even more lustrously following the world premiere of this taut, powerful and completely engrossing two-act opera. Commissioned by OTSL, it contains a strong and stirring score written by New Orleans jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and a sobering libretto by playwright Michael Cristofer.
It also features some remarkable performances, led by Arthur Woodley, who simply inhabits Griffith as a 65-year-old man in 2003 or so. Not only is Woodley’s bass voice resonant and rich, but he complements his accomplished singing with strong acting. His crumpled composure reflects a lifetime of battering in the ring that has left Griffith with a condition called dementia pugilistica or “boxer’s brain.” It’s terribly sad watching him sing in wonder about where his second shoe might be, e.g.
Other Info: There’s also a brilliant performance by renowned opera star Denyce Graves, making her OTSL debut as Griffith’s self-centered, material mother Emelda. Graves displays her magnificent mezzo-soprano on a soul-searching aria in the second act where she kneels before the audience, wailing at her situation and that of her son Emile, a young man she didn’t even recognize at first and then called by his brother’s name until corrected.
Other memorable work is done by baritone Robert Orth, making his OTSL debut as Emile’s trainer Howie Albert; former Gerdine Young Artist Aubrey Allicock as the young boxer Emile; Jordan Jones as Emile as a boy; and Victor Ryan Robertson in his OTSL debut as Benny “Kid” Paret and his son.
Christopher Hutchinson, a Gerdine Young Artist, displays considerable flair and a strong tenor as the ring announcer and narrator of sorts, and tenor Brian Arreola makes a fine impression as Emile’s full-time caregiver and adopted son Luis (who was in the audience on opening night). Meredith Arwady portrays Kathy Hagan, owner of a gay bar frequented by the young Griffith, Lorenzo Miguel Garcia is a young man attracted to Griffith at the bar, and Chabrelle Williams plays a number of roles, including Griffith’s abusively strict cousin Blanche.
Blanchard dwells musically on such lingering topics as “What is a man?” and “How does it feel to kill a man?” that are sung by or at Griffith throughout the performance. A man who has boxed for 17 years, Blanchard describes his score as “an opera in jazz” rather than “a jazz opera,” and certainly the music is colored with rich jazz roots. It’s also more than that, though, nodding to its heritage as an operatic score complete with memorable arias.
Cristofer won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his drama, The Shadow Box. He knows his way around a deeply human story and proves it again with a moving libretto.
Kudos to conductor George Manahan for guiding his orchestra through Blanchard’s lush score, including expert performances by a rhythm section composed of pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and Robert Hurst III on bass. James Robertson’s stage direction is tense, disciplined and expertly utilizes the impressive scenic design created by Allen Moyer.
The latter features background footage taken from newspapers and photos from early ‘60s fights, courtesy of video and projection designer Greg Emetaz, as well as a ring simply and hauntingly rendered by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and a lonely red boxing bag that introduces the opera.
Sean Curran’s choreography creatively conveys the balletic aspects of the deadly bout, James Schuette provides the costumes, Rusty Wandall the sound design and wigs and makeup design is by Tom Watson.
Griffith’s sexual preferences were largely ignored by the media of the day, when gay life was lived in the closet or on the fringes of society. Champion is a knockout production by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis that pulls no punches in telling Griffith’s amazing story of battling adversity and self-recrimination for half a century.
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 21, 25, 27, 30
Tickets: $25-$128; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard