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Opera Theatre and Terence Blanchard discuss world premiere of ‘Champion’

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Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2013 12:05 am

“We couldn’t have planned it better,” said Jim Robinson, director of Opera Theatre Saint Louis’ upcoming world premiere of “Champion.”

“There are so many things that are in our minds these days – like Jason Collins – and it’s just the way that the current of popular culture is going,” Robinson said. “We are very happy to be taking on something that has such resonance.”

On the heels of NBA player Jason Collins coming out publicly as a gay professional athlete, Opera Theatre Saint Louis will present the story of a boxer who lived at a time that was not possible.

“Champion” is an operatic adaptation of former welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith’s life story, set to music by Terence Blanchard with the libretto written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer. With music by five-time Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer With music by five-time Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer With music by five-time Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael CristoferTTTGriffithGriffith was a closeted gay man in the world of professional sports 50 years before Collins’ announcement two weeks ago.

On Monday, May 20, Blanchard, OTSL general director Timothy O’Leary and “Champion” cast member Denyce Graves will participate in a panel discussion at the Ethical Society, moderated by Gerald Early of Washington University, that will preview the performance. 

“I think there will be plenty of questions about this work,” Robinson said. “Why the subject? Why an opera about a boxer? Why commission a new opera from a jazz composer as opposed to a classical composer?”

It was Blanchard’s idea to focus on Griffith, a native of the Virgin Islands, whose story is fascinating apart from his sexual identity. One of his opponents, Benny Paret, died April 3, 1962 as a result of injuries sustained in the ring with Griffith at Madison Square Garden. Griffith later met with the Paret’s son in an effort to make peace with the past. In 1992, Griffith was viciously beaten and almost killed on a New York City street after leaving a gay bar.    

“I hope people get the story of the life of Emile Griffith,” Robinson said, “and that they walk away with a sense of who he was and how important he was historically – not just in boxing.”

“Champion” is the the debut opera for a composer who has won five Grammy Awards and scored more than 40 films. Blanchard rose to the challenge.

“Terence is the most welcoming, open and collaborative person that I’ve ever worked with,” Robinson said. “In the opera business we do a lot of work with dead composers, so having a live one who has been so open and so generous with his time and his talent has really taught us all about the notion of collaboration.”

The partnership came about thanks to Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, and his wish to work with OTSL. He suggested that they commission Blanchard to do a jazz opera.

“It’s definitely an operatic work, but the music is really, really rooted in jazz,” Robinson said. “There is a wonderful mixture and fusion of these two worlds – they can work together to create something that is quite unique and quite beautiful.”

Jazz is often credited as the most distinctively American music, and in collaborating on a jazz opera Robinson thinks Opera Theatre Saint Louis has created a distinctly American opera.

“This is a real American opera,” Robinson said. “It has real American music, and it has a real American story.”

Opera Theatre St. Louis’ panel discussion for “Champion” will take place 6 p.m. Monday, May 20 at The Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Rd. There will be six performances of “Champion” at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves between June 15-30. For more information, visit www.opera-stl.org or www.ethicalstl.org or call (314) 961-0644.

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