Opera Theatre of Saint Louis commissioning and producing the world premiere of Champion showed the same audacity as fighters who lace up and enter the boxing ring.

An opera about prizefighting would be ambitious in its own right, but Champion is much more: it’s an opera about a black gay boxer (Emile Griffith) whose music was composed by a jazz musician (Terence Blanchard) who had never written an opera before this commission.

Librettist Michael Cristofer’s storyline is compelling, but Griffith’s life had dramatic climaxes any fiction writer would envy.

An orphan boy – one of seven children his mother left with various relatives across the Caribbean island of St. Thomas – Griffith came to New York with dreams of making a life for himself as a hat maker. He wound up becoming a world champion boxer instead – and delivering a killing blow to an opponent at the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Griffith contended with racism and segregation and struggled with his homosexuality as he competed in the most brutal and masculine of all professional sports.

In the world premiere staged Saturday night at the Loretto-Hilton, Arthur Woodley possessed the focus and dedication to character necessary to capture the mature Griffith’s emotional complexity and suffering. Aubrey Allicock displayed convincing charisma as the younger Emile. Jordan Jones gave aching musical expressions to Griffith’s miserable childhood as a pre-pubescent Emile.

Denyce Graves was a commanding force as Griffith’s mother Emelda. She leapt from whimsical charm as an American immigrant to haunting portrayals of her impoverished upbringing in St. Thomas.

Chabrelle Williams also was a standout in her dual roles as Griffith’s wife Sadie and his cousin Blanche. She showed the potential of a rising diva in a duet with Graves.

The production was a technical knockout. Audiences at first expect an intimate, minimalistic set as they see a black box with a bright red heavy bag dangling from center stage. However, they receive a full-fledged multi-media experience thanks to the lighting design of Christopher Akerlind and the scenic design of James Schuette.

Ropes made from rays of light and an intricately choreographed rotating set catches the viewer off-guard without approaching sensory overload. Multimedia footage of fights and news reports added authenticity.

For all its triumphs, Champion fell short musically. Influences borrowed from jazz, hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean beats added an interesting variety, but the Americanization of the arias left little by way of rich vibrato. The voices jarred with the orchestra. Chord progressions failed to flow naturally, and keys changed in ways that strained the singers’ voices.

Some opera purists and classical vocal music lovers may leave underwhelmed at Blanchard’s artistry in this medium. But the production value – coupled with Cristofer’s compelling libretto – compensated for the musical shortcomings.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ presentation of world-premiere of Champion continues through June 30 at the Loretto-Hilton theatre, Edgar Road. For more information, visit www.opera-stl.org or call (314) 961-0644.

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