Champion Arrives at the Met in a Brilliant and Gripping Production
Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s Champion premiered in 2013 with Opera St. Louis as a co-commission of the company and Jazz St. Louis. Last season, Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, was the first opera by a Black composer ever staged at the Met. With Champion, his second opera premiere at the Met in back-to-back seasons, the acclaimed jazz trumpeter and composer of Spike Lee film scores offers the audience a work of distinct and complementary musical palettes unfolding between lively, colorful, dance-like scenes, soulful solos, and sweeping cinematic-music-like moments, infused throughout with modulations of jazz and blues.
Eric Owens as Emile Griffith and Chauncey Packer as Luis Rodrigo Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s Champion – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Champion examines the real-life story of famous boxer Emile Griffith, his struggles with embracing his gay identity, and the fated match that would haunt him until his death. The opera opens with Emile Griffith as an old man suffering from dementia in a Long Island apartment. From there, the story moves between past and present as Emile remembers the major turning points in his life as far back as the vivid ambience of his birthplace in the Virgin Islands and the suffering of abuse at the hands of a sadistic cousin with whom his mother left him.
The plot depicts Emile leaving his home in Saint Thomas, reuniting with his mother in New York, meeting the hat manufacturer who would become his coach, and half-heartedly embarking on his boxing career while he loves making hats and displays great talent as a milliner. Throughout, he struggles to embrace his homosexuality in a world where being gay was considered an illness.
Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith and Eric Greene as Benny “Kid” Paret in Terence Blanchard’s Champion – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
As his boxing career blossoms, the tragic climax arises in a match at Madison Square Garden against Cuban boxer Benny “Kid” Paret, Jr. on March 24, 1962. Benny insults Emile with homophobic slurs, and during the fight, Emile unleashes his rage, delivering the rapid blows that put Benny in a coma. Emile wins the champion title, while Paret dies of a brain hemorrhage ten days later. His death would haunt Emile for the rest of his life, regardless of the many trophies and titles he would win and despite his attempts at living it up, basking in his fame and money. The real Emile Griffith actually died after the premiere of Blanchard’s opera, from degenerative encephalitis caused by traumatic brain injuries due to the many years of fighting.
The second half of the opera shows Emile’s haunting, as he attempts to come to terms with having killed a man while he gains greater glory and tries to deny his identity by taking a young bride. But mental and physical decline creep in, eventually leading to dementia and isolation.
Director James Robinson and choreographer Camille A. Brown have created a compelling, brilliant production, with impressively realistic sets by Allen Moyer and a diverse array of colorful, glittering, sleek, appealing costumes by Montana Levi Blanco. There are a series of massive screens around the stage while in the center, sets shift, enhanced by Greg Emetaz’s changing projections many of which showcase Emile in the ring and the fatal fight. The fight itself is perfectly choreographed, each punch on stage is briefly frozen-framed and also displayed through the projections. The flashback structure of the opera presents Emile at three stages of life: old man, young man, and child.
Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith and Paul Groves as Howie Albert in Terence Blanchard’s Champion – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Eric Owens, as the old Emile, paints a progressively touching portrait of the haunted, afflicted boxer who is often confused and obsessed with where things, like his shoes, belong, also wondering where he himself belongs. His grainy, powerful voice is infused with longing, haunting, tender colors that, combined with his affecting body language, pull at the heartstrings and elicit compassion. In one of the most devastatingly moving moments of the opera, Emile tells his caretaker and companion Luis: “I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me.” Owens expresses such fragility and sorrow that it is hard not to get choked up.
As the younger Emile, Ryan Speedo Green is brilliant, vocally and physically. His booming, rounded, robust, flexible tones convey a character brimming with life, passion, complex emotions, and sensitivity. Charismatic and agile, he has mastered Camille A. Brown’s choreography to the point where, to quote a Yeats’ poem, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” In embodying the athlete, Green succeeds in embodying the sport itself.
Ethan Joseph, as the child Emile, offers the audience his young voice with earnestness and moving tenderness. One of his most poignant moments is when he sings of the long night he must endure while holding a cinder block above his head as punishment by his sadistic cousin who accuses him of having the devil inside. Joseph sails through the challenging vocal lines with steady smoothness and impressive musicality.
Ethan Joseph as Little Emile, Eric Owens as Emile Griffith and Latonia Moore as Emelda Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s Champion – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
As Emile’s mother, Emelda Griffith, Latonia Moore makes the role her own through her superb vocal mastery and vibrant personality. Her voice, at once creamy and crystalline, weaves enchantment through the varied moods of her character, sparkling in playfulness, mesmerizing in intensity, and caressing in seductiveness. She soars beautifully in the sweeping phrases of her long aria in the second act, when she remembers her childhood in the Virgin Islands. Accompanied by solo double bass and accessing varied emotional colors, Moore’s interpretation of this aria makes for one of the most affecting moments in the opera.
Edward Nelson as the Man in Bar and Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s Champion – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Tenor Paul Groves uses his incisive voice to great effect in creating a ruthless, self-interested personage as Emile’s coach and manager, Howie Albert. As Kathy Hagen of Hagen’s Hole, the bar where Emile allows himself to open up to his desires, Stephanie Blythe regales the audience with her own mini show through a vivacious, bawdy portrayal and her ability to switch from abundant mezzo voice to a jazzier sound. As Emile’s caretaker, Luis, Chauncey Packer’s bright, sturdy tenor voice creates the perfect animating complementary force to Owens’ brooding, sorrowful, haunted sounds. In a double role as Benny “Kid” Paret and Paret’s son who meets with old Emile at the end of the opera, Eric Greene adeptly shifts his strong baritone sound from the taunting ruthlessness of the father to the compassionate sweetness of the son. Brittany Renee brings glistening, nimble vocal freshness to her small role as Griffith’s wife Sadie. Edward Nelson’s brisk baritone voice shifts between vigor and seductiveness as he flirts with Emile.
Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin deftly leads the orchestra through Blanchard’s massive varied mosaic of sounds and rhythms, effortlessly highlighting the distinctive musical idioms while also keeping them flawlessly integrated into the compelling musical landscape.
An absolute must-see at the Metropolitan Opera this season! Champion continues through May 13 at the Metropolitan Opera. Info / tickets
Top photo: Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s Champion – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera