Fiction and reality come together at the Opéra de Montréal this January with the Canadian premiere of Champion, a one-of-a-kind work based on a true story. In 1962, boxers Emile Griffith and Benny Paret face off in the ring. During the bout, Paret taunts his adversary, making malicious allusions about his sexual orientation. Stung into action, Griffith pummels Paret with blows, putting him into a coma from which he dies ten days later. After the fight, Emile Griffith would never be the same again…
“The story of Champion is a highly topical one, as evidenced when you follow sports in Quebec. A fight gone wrong, with all the ensuing human drama, is a theme that periodically crops up in the news, from Emile Griffith to Adonis Stevenson to Gaétan Hart in 1980. These stories are always so overwhelming, in fact, that opera is the best medium there is to tell them!” says Michel Beaulac, Artistic Director of the Opéra de Montréal.
With an aesthetic that’s equal parts opera, jazz, and gospel music, Champion is one of the most striking works in recent years, composed by renowned African-American jazz musician Terence Blanchard, to a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer. Montrealers will have a chance to see an impressive production featuring an exceptional cast, the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, the Opéra de Montréal Chorus, and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. “It is a true privilege to present Champion in a very diverse city, like Montreal, with its love of jazz. Several partners, like the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Black History Month, will be on hand for the event!” adds Michel Beaulac.
The role of Emile Griffith is split in two, allowing the work to explore different stages of Griffith’s life. Bass Arthur Woodley (Emile), renowned for his “firm, rich” voice (The Washington Post) and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock (Young Emile), hailed as “sturdy… dynamic… [and] excellent” (The New York Times) will again perform the role they both created in 2013 at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Also from the original cast, tenor Victor Ryan Robertson will appear in the Montreal production as Benny “The Kid” Paret.
The three singers will lead a cast of accomplished Canadian artists: Catherine Daniel (Emelda Griffith), recently hailed in Das Rheingold; Brett Polegato (Howie Albert) with his “serious and seductive voice” (The Globe and Mail); Asitha Tennekoon (Luis Griffith); and Chantale Nurse (Blanche/Sadie). Two singers from the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, Sebastian Haboczki (Ring Announcer) and Scott Brooks (Man in the bar), complete the cast. The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, under the direction of Dr. Trevor Payne, and the Opéra de Montréal Chorus will join forces to add their choral power to the work.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis Artistic Director James Robinson, who directed the world premiere of Champion, will be here to direct the Montreal production as well. He will again be working alongside his colleague, American conductor George Manahan—also on hand for the work’s premiere—, who will conduct the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the jazz musicians joining the orchestra for this production.
Suffering from dementia, former prizefighting champion Emile Griffith is confused and haunted by his past. He dwells on memories that keep clashing in his disease-stricken brain, reliving key moments in his life. He remembers his journey to New York, when he was young and filled with the hope of finding his mother and making his fortune as a singer or a baseball player. He recalls his pivotal encounter with hat-maker Howie Albert, who decides to introduce him to boxing and train him as a prizefighter. Also fresh in his mind are the nights he spent in a Manhattan gay bar, his gateway to a world both frightening and attractive. But above all, he remembers his adversary Benny Paret calling him “maricon” before their bout in 1962… his fury at hearing the homophobic slur… the 17 blows brought down on Paret in under 7 seconds… Benny’s empty stare looking up at him from the mat… and the announcement of his death 10 days later.
After the fight, everything changes for Griffith. Following a long losing streak, the first signs of dementia begin to appear. He rejects his trainer, his wife, and his mother, seeking comfort in New York’s gay scene. One night, as he is leaving a bar, a group of thugs beat him violently, exacerbating his brain injuries. Years later, plagued by guilt and illness, Emile constantly relives the nightmare of the attack, struggling to find peace until, one evening, back in his apartment, the memories and voices subside.
Terence Blanchard quickly distinguished himself as a leading jazz trumpeter, pursuing a multidisciplinary career in jazz and in other artistic spheres. A five-time Grammy Award winner, he is one of the most influential jazz musicians and film composers of his generation—an artist who has had a hand in creating today’s jazz heritage. His work has been recognized by US Artists, the MAP Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
As a composer of music for film, Blanchard is credited with writing or performing on over 50 scores, the most recent of which is for Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman. His score for Lee’s 25th Hour was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Some of Blanchard’s other film scores include Mike Binder’s Black or White, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball, Darnell Martin’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tim Story’s Barbershop, and Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails. Blanchard has also recently enjoyed success as a Broadway composer, with the play The Motherf**ker With a Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, starring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale. He also voiced a role in the animated Disney film The Princess and the Frog and is the Creative Chair of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s jazz series. Finally, after having served as the Artistic Director of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz for a decade, he was appointed “Artist in Residence” at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2015, where he works with students in the areas of artistic development and composition. His first opera, Champion, was given its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis before making its way across the United States. He is currently working on a second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, co-commissioned by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis. He also gives master classes around the world and is involved in outreach activities in his beloved hometown of New Orleans.
Opera: Champion by Terence Blanchard
Genre: “Opera in jazz”
Structure: 2 acts
Language: English with English and French surtitles
Libretto: Michael Cristofer
Premiere: Opera Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis (USA), June 15, 2013
Production: Washington National Opera
Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
January 26, 29, 31 and February 2, 2019 at 7:30 pm