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Terence Blanchard’s ‘Champion’: WNO’s knockout production

Written By | Mar 8, 2017

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2017 – While the box office jury is still out on this year’s great musical experiment—staging two contemporary American operas in a row—the Washington National Opera resolutely mounted its second contemporary American opera in a row this Saturday past at the Kennedy Center.

Following on the heels of last weekend’s big opening for Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” this weekend’s Washington debut of Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” scored yet another success at the Opera House with a dazzling array of musical punches the likes of which area opera fans have likely never seen or heard before.

The Emile Griffith Story

Emile Griffith, image via Wikipedia entry on the boxing champ.

Based on the strange and tragic career trajectory of former welterweight boxing champ Emile Griffith, “Champion” is the far-from-genteel story of one of the boxing community’s most unusul celebrities, a former Virgin Islands hat maker who made a radical career switch and became virtually an overnight success on the professional boxing circuit in the early 1960s.

As a star fighter in the macho, alpha-male boxing world of that era the buzz on the street was that Griffith was a homosexual the term then in standard use. His tenacious chief opponent, Benny “The Kid” Paret, liked to taunt Griffith on his alleged sexual proclivities, no less, the better to get Emile off his game before each match up took place.

As their third matchup approached, Benny went out of his way to intensify his bullying of Griffith who finally snapped and felled Benny with a seemingly never-ending flurry of brutal punches that sent him to the mat—and, ten days later, to the afterlife. Griffith won the title that day but was haunted for the rest of his life by Benny Paret’s death.

But psychologically, something changed forever inside of Emile. His career success continued for a time before he went into a long decline. Gradually succumbing to dementia, due at least in part to suffering too many blows to the head (similar to Muhammed Ali), Griffith passed away in an extended-care facility in Hempstead, Long Island, New York in 2013 at the age of 75.

Is “Champion” really an opera?

In a genre like opera, whose traditionally grand subject matter often involved gods and goddesses and kings, queens and assorted royalty, an opera focused on a rather nonstandard professional boxing champion may perhaps seem a bit odd, although we’ve seen at least two additional “boxing” operas in recent years.

But operas have “democratized” over the past 125 years or so—think about that gypsy cigarette factory worker named Carmen, for example, or those penniless writers and artists in Puccini’s “La Bohème”—helping to provide “Champion” with its own noble lineage of everyday people just trying to make it in a difficult world.

Traditionalists might also object to the musical style of “Champion.” Its complex orchestral score connects to late Romanticism. But the music’s seething undercurrent is built on jazz intervals and motifs stemming more from movies, pop culture and dance hall music, meaning “Champion” can’t be a real opera.

But that’s the kind of charge once leveled against George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” once ridiculed as the pretentious work of a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith but now a reliable staple for numerous opera companies searching for something beside the ubiquitous “La Bohème” to get those turnstiles humming.

(The composer shares his own thoughts on “Champion” in the video below.)

In our view, “Champion” is a valid, vividly-realized contemporary American opera, one of the best we’ve heard in recent years. So many of its American predecessors have vanished from the scene, lost as they were and are in the hideous 20th century atonal forest that dominated American classical music and alienated audiences for far too long.

But of late, younger American opera composers seem vitally interested in getting opera’s audience back by creating operas with a focus on real people, music with contemporary relevance and listenability, and lyrics that reflect current times including some shocking vulgarities at least within the context of traditional opera.

Far better known as a massively talented jazz trumpeter, band leader, music arranger and film composer (most recently, he composed the score for Robert De Niro’s film “The Comedian”), Terence Blanchard chose the Emile Griffith story as his first foray into the world of opera, teaming most fortuitously with librettist Michael Cristofer, a well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor and filmmaker.

The result of this combination—“Champion”—actually falls quite neatly into the verismo opera lineage of intense once-acts like Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and, yes, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” The story involves Emile Griffith’s down-to-earth tragedy, set to a contemporary American score colored with Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz riffs and functioning as a seething, movie-style psychological undercurrent for the soloists.

In doing a bit of research for this performance, this reviewer noted that “Champion” has only been performed twice, first in its 2013 world premiere performances by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis during that company’s summer season; and again in 2016 by Opera Parallèle, a small San Francisco company primarily dedicated to the performance of contemporary opera.

Critics have been relatively kind to “Champion” in their reviews of these performances. But inevitable notes of condescension tend to creep in, given the composer’s lack of experience in the operatic genre. After hearing this opera ourselves, however, we tend to regard these criticisms as the typical academic snarkiness we’d expect for something new.

Even worse has been some of the sniping at Michael Cristofer’s excellent English language libretto. It is, in our opinion, the hands-down best contemporary American libretto we’ve yet seen or heard.

In “Champion,” each scene, each eminently sing-able line penned by Mr. Cristofer distills the essence of the character or characters singing these words. Even better, clearly cognizant of traditional poetics and contemporary hip-hop alike, much of Mr. Cristofer’s libretto is expressed in discernable and quite catchy rhythm and rhyme, providing a link back to many of the greatest lyrical libretti from the operatic past

As for us, our only quibble with “Champion” as it now stands is that, perhaps afraid of not quite getting its point across, the opera’s final scene overstays its welcome by roughly five minutes. The music in this opera is smart, always at one with the thematics of the story, and, above all, provides both context and embellishment for the characters the singers are bringing to life.

Some critics have complained that there are no tuneful arias listeners can hum on their way home, which is true. But there are at least three riveting, extended solos that memorably articulate each character.

And we must remember that, in context, most opera composers—including Mr. Blanchard—since at least the time of Puccini, tend to write in late verismo style. That means they’re not looking to pen showy, memorable tunes. Instead they strive to create the kind of “sung drama” that provides dramatic impact for the characters, their words, their thoughts and their feelings without aiming to write hit tunes vying to hit the Billboard Top 100 chart.

“Champion”: Opening night performance

As for WNO’s production—“Champion’s” D.C. and East Coast premiere performances—this one’s a winner. It’s authentic, accessible, down-to-earth, challenging, entertaining and psychologically complex—the latter being a tough nut to crack in a genre not always known for its subtlety.

Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith – photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

In terms of star power, it was delightful to see WNO bring back one of Washington’s local favorites, D.C.-born mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves who sings the key role of Griffith’s no-so-admirable mom, Emelda Griffith.

Ms. Graves also starred in this opera’s original St. Louis performances, and her increasing comfort with this role was obvious during last Saturday’s opening night performance of “Champion.”

Emelda is hard-bitten, bitter and yet unrepentant with regard to her shabby past and her utter neglect of her serial offspring by serial significant others. Her attempts to rekindle some kind of emotional contact with her long-abandoned son, Emile, are some of the most gut-wrenching scenes in this opera, and Ms. Graves handles them with a kind of remorseless dignity. Mr. Blanchard’s vocal writing often requires Emelda to descend into the deep, lower mezzo range where Ms. Graves clearly excels. That’s particularly true in Emelda’s aria-like extended solos that plumb the depressive depths of her highly conflicted character.

Arthur Woodley as “Old” Emile Griffith – photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Emile Griffith, the title character of “Champion,” is sung not by one but by three soloists: “Old” Emile by bass Arthur Woodley, who sang the same role in the original production; “Young” Emile, the real-time boxer in the opera, by bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock who also sang this character in St. Louis; and “Little” Emile by boy soprano Samuel Grace, who’s sung with the WNO Children’s Chorus.

Of the three Emiles, “Young” Emile is the most strenuous role, and Aubrey Allicock has it all. He has the stamina and physique that makes his physical portrayal of a fighter in his prime completely believable. His vocal power and stamina are impressive as well, most notably in those signature vocal moments sung along with or directly after strenuous physical workouts—very hard to do if the singer is breathless after that exertion.

Andrew McLaughlin as Man in the Bar and Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith – photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Mr. Allicock vocally encompasses all the other aspects of his character as well, including his secretiveness, furtiveness, and his persistent inner fears. Such emotions are surprising, perhaps, in a welterweight champion fighter of Griffith’s caliber. But this is consistent with his pervasive fear of being “outed”—something profoundly more horrifying in the 1950s and 1960s when Griffiths was at the peak of his career in this, the most macho of professions. Mr. Allicock believably articulates the nuances of his character with his clear, powerful, believable vocal approach.

As “Old” Emile, Arthur Woodley has an entirely different challenge. He must portray a character in steep decline. Old Emile suffers from dementia to the point where he can barely remember what he did just a minute or two ago.

The real Luis Rodrigo Griffith, Emile Griffith’s son. (Via Wikipedia entry on Emile Griffith)

However, as his caretaker—actually his own son, Luis, delicately portrayed and sun by tenor Frederick Ballentine, currently one of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists—manipulates him to and fro, Old Emile will occasionally recall a scene from his past, singing about it vividly until that memory flickers out once again. Mr. Woodley’s delicate approach to this elusive role is something we rarely experience, at least in this vocal range. He thoughtfully tempers his measured bass solos, articulating the subtleties of a fading memory with unusual poignancy.

Of the three Emiles, “Little” Emile is the briefest role, appearing in several short scenes. But in one sadly unpleasant scene, he provides a central rationale for why the adult “Young” Emile is so troubled, so disconnected. Samuel Grace does a fine job as both a thespian and a young vocalist in this role, articulating the dreams and the tragedies of a confused young boy whose life, as we already know, will end up both triumphantly and tragically.

The supporting characters in this production are all strong vocalists whose performances range from memorable cameos to broader key scenes. In the brief but key role of Griffith’s wife (yes, he was bi- as well as gay), soprano Leah Hawkins turns in a memorable performance. In the crucial, partly spoken role of the Ring Announcer, tenor David Blalock was splendidly hyperactive, singing at times while functioning a bit like the “Cabaret’s” bizarre Emcee, adding a weird aura to this opera.

In another brief but key role as Emile’s chief antagonist, Benny “The Kid” Paret, tenor Victor Ryan Robertson was sharp, strikingly aggressive and, most importantly, believably over-the-top in calling out Griffith’s confused sexuality, infuriating Emile to the point of no return.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges who portrayed Howie Albert, Griffith’s longtime manager was, unfortunately, vocally indisposed on Saturday, a situation that was preannounced. After Mr. Tigges’ tentative initial scene, WNO adopted a solution that we last saw on opening night of the company’s original American Ring production of “Siegfried,” during which the scheduled soloist experienced similar issue. In both cases, the scheduled soloist acted his part and lip-synched the vocals while a substitute singer in the wings took over the vocals.

In this case, baritone Samuel Schultz stepped in to help, singing the role discretely positioned downstage right for the remainder of the opening night performance. Mr. Tigges continued to portray the onstage character, improvising quite effectively in the process while lip-synching the music. Happily, both Mr. Tigges and Mr. Schultz—in his WNO debut—pulled it off, and quite effectively.

Thumbs up for everything and everyone else involved with this production. Director James Robinson kept this hyper-kinetic opera rolling without missing a beat.

In his WNO debut, conductor George Manahan had an uncanny knack with this score, leading the WNO Orchestra in its superb, vital reading of this cinematic music, including occasional forays by a crisp, rhythmic jazz quartet.

The gaudy, colorful, Mardi Gras-style costuming of James Schuette added an eerie realism to the production, particularly in the psychologically crucial bar scenes.

Veteran designer Allen Moyer’s sets employed elements from the company’s production of “Dead Man Walking”—running simultaneously this month with “Champion”—adding moving screens and set scenes made even more effective by the projected scenery of projection designer Greg Emetaz.

A hat tip as well to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind whose atmospheric stage lighting worked hand-in-hand with the vocalists and the orchestra to create a seamless dream-world atmosphere for this genuinely fine production.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

WNO’s D.C. and East Coast premiere of Terence Blanchard’s and Michael Cristofer’s “Champion” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through March 18. For tickets to remaining performances, ($35-300) visit WNO’s Kennedy Center web page here. For more information, the WNO link is here.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17