On Saturday, June 15, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis performs the world premiere of jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard’s first opera, Champion. Set to a libretto by Michael Cristofer, the opera tells the true story of Emile Griffith, a gay boxer who became the Welterweight Champion of the World. But in a boxing match, he kills his opponent through no fault of his own, and then has to live with the guilt for the rest of his life.
Opera Theatre General Director explains that the project was many years in the making. Before he and OTSL Artistic Director James Robinson even joined the company, there was a desire to collaborate with Jazz St. Louis on an opera and were thrilled to finally get the project underway. “We said to [Jazz St. Louis Executive Director] Gene Dobbs Bradford, if we could get the greatest living American jazz composer to write his or her first opera, who would that be? And he said without hesitating, ‘That would be Terence Blanchard.’ And he knew something that we didn’t know, that Terence’s father had been an amateur operatic baritone, so Terence had opera in his ears and in his blood.”
While Blanchard was very experienced in composing jazz music and film scores, writing on opera was a whole different proposition, but one that proved to be very fulfilling. “This is the first time in my life that I’ve created something and literally just watched the characters develop in front of my eyes. From the first read through when this cast sat down to just sing all of the music, it was a very moving thing for me. But to come back a couple of weeks later and to see them moving around on the stage, to see these characters take shape, the story take form in a space where people are moving around, and to see what Denyce [Graves] has done with this character is miraculous, because now it’s a story to me, it’s not [just] music, and it’s gone well beyond something that I’ve written, in my mind at least. It’s taken on its own life and that’s first time I’ve seen that.”
Graves who sings the role of Emile Griffith’s mother, told Cityscape host Steve Potter what a challenge the role is. “It’s been a tremendous experience,” she said, “but it’s been in a lot of ways a great nourishing ground for me because it has really stretched me out of that which I thought I knew and really exposed a lot of weaknesses and strength in terms of musicianship and really it challenged me to learn to adjust my ear and my whole musical bedrock differently. That’s been the greatest sort of shift that’s happened.”
Blanchard pointed out that the opera is not just a story about boxing. “The story is really about forgiveness and redemption. It’s a universal story. That’s the appeal of the story in my mind. I just happen to be a big boxing fan, a big fight fan, and I knew the story of Emile, and I thought the back drop of boxing could be something that would be new and fresh in the world of opera. But the story itself is a universal one.”
Graves, who is making her Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debut, commented on her experience thus far. “It’s been wonderful from start to finish, every part of it,” she said. “There’s been wonderful buoyancy of support from the administration all the way through the artistic department. It’s been a pleasure. It’s been a real gift.”
Potter asked Blanchard if he was nervous about the opening performance. “I’m not nervous now. I was nervous at the first read through because I kept thinking, man, I hope what I wrote works. But after seeing these performers, I’m just looking forward to having a good time.”
O’Leary affirmed that Blanchard’s opera “works.” He also looks forward to completing the three year cycle of world premieres, New Works, Bold Voices, including Twenty-Seven by Ricky Ian Gordon with libretto by Michael Korie in 2014 and Shalimar the Clown by Jack Perla based on a novel by Salmon Rushdie in 2015.
Terence Blanchard, Denyce Graves and Timothy O’Leary were Steve Potter’s guests on Cityscape to discuss Blanchard’s opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ production of it.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Presents Terence Blanchard's "Champion"
June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27 and 30, 2013
Loretto Hilton Performing Arts Center, 130 Edgar Road (At Big Bend)
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Website