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With 'Champion,' jazz musician Blanchard embraces opera, honors his father

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2013 - At 50, renowned jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard could certainly rest on his reputation. Instead he has nearly finished writing his first opera -- “Champion.”

An opera in jazz style, "Champion" will have its premiere June 15 at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. It is the first of a three-year OTSL cycle of the St. Louis company’s new American commissions. Premieres of the remaining two are scheduled for 2014 and 2015.

Blanchard has not yet finished its overture, and rehearsals are still more than two months away. But Blanchard is now eager to write his second opera.

“I was overwhelmed about the whole notion, had real trepidations years ago when I got the call about writing an opera, but it’s been a wonderful experience,” Blanchard said in an interview Tuesday afternoon at Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ Sally Levy Center.

“I definitely want to do more operas,” he added.  “I know much more about writing for the voice now and I have lots of ideas for stories and what I’d do next.”

Blanchard has written for choruses before, but blending those voices is much like writing for an orchestra, he said. For the opera he had to write for specific solo human voices. At early workshops of the work he was struck by how different three different baritone voices sounded. 

On airplanes and in hotel rooms, he found himself jotting down musical solutions to some aria or orchestral music as finds a way to transform the story’s emotions to connect with an audience.

Composing “is like childbirth. When you are going through it in the heat of the battle, you are in pain and say never again,” he said. “Then, the baby is born and you love it. I am excited about 'Champion' and now I can’t wait to do it again.

He’s grateful for the help and amiable attention from OTSL music director Stephen Lord, artistic director Jim Robinson and the various singers here and in Cincinnati.

“In the movies they don’t give you any help they just say here it is, finish it by the deadline,” said Blanchard, who has written the score for 40 movies. “Often the (movie) director describes all these meanings he wants that just are not in the movie.”

"Champion," which Blanchard describes as an “opera in the jazz” style, not even a “jazz opera,” will have just six performances through June 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves.

“It’s jazz, but don’t expect a big band and blues all the way through,” he said.

His jazz sound is melodic but “is not about the past. I always like to move jazz forward, let the lines move forward on their own,” he said.  “Jazz has no boundaries, should be on cutting edge.”

Blanchard recalled that when he "entered (the music world), jazz had become a reflection of itself, always looking back. I try to always look forward.”

In “Champion” the musicians have just a few places where they might improvise; the “Champion” score does not call for jamming and improvisation. No instrument will just take off and stop the flow the story, he said.

“The music does not get in the way of storytelling, or the words,” he said.

“I am trying to tell the story, such a strong story, and put my ego aside, an opera is about the story not about me,” he added. Often when he hears works by contemporary composers, he says he sees them trying to prove some signature statement rather than serving the story.

"That’s all right but I don’t want to do that.”

Honoring his father

Putting his right hand to his chest, Blanchard says he’s always has a special affinity for opera.  His dad Joseph Oliver Blanchard, who died 14 years ago, sang baritone for years in a small men’s opera singing group in New Orleans. The composer smiled broadly when he talked about how his dad would be so very happy that his son now is writing an opera.

The younger Blanchard grew up hearing every major aria on records at home. The big baritone arias he can still hear as he first heard them in his dad’s own voice. All his life his dad urged him to listen to opera especially when he studied music and composition in high school and at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

His dad’s day job as an insurance office manager provided a comfortable middle class life for his wife Wilhelmina and their only child. In his dad’s singing prime in the 1950s and ‘60s, opera companies did not cast black men in solo roles beyond the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess.” 

“We went to many opera performances of my dad, other family members and their friends, so I love that now I am coming full circle,” he said. “It’s very emotional for me. My father was the person who was the biggest musical influence in my life.”

His dad suffered from dementia for the last decade of his life but he still would ask his son to watch live telecasts of operas with him on PBS. When he could, Blanchard sat with his father enjoying the music.

His parents gave their only child piano lessons when he turned 5, but by the time he was 8 he asked to play the trumpet.

In summer camps and after school, he played trumpet with his friend Wynton Marsalis. The two boys studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school program where their teachers were his pal’s dad Ellis Marsalis, Jr. and composition teacher Roger Dickerson. Dickerson still is his teacher and he consulted him frequently as he wrote “Champion.” The teacher keeps telling him to be himself.

For Blanchard, music “If it wasn’t for music, for all those who helped me I don’t know what I might have become,” he said. Growing up in a comfortably middle-class New Orleans neighborhood, he still saw people gambling and shooting up drugs on the sidewalks near his house.

“My life could have gone in that direction,” he said. “

In the ring

It's not at all surprising that Blanchard suggested a boxing story for the opera commission. It is his favorite exercise. When he’s on the road he often works out several times a week at one of the boxing gyms across the country.

But the connection goes deeper than that. Years ago he was moved when his longtime New Orleans friend and boxing trainer, former heavyweight champion Michael Bentt told him the tragic life story of welterweight champion Emile Griffith, a reluctant fighter who saw boxing primarily as a way for a Caribbean immigrant to make a living.

Three times Griffith fought Benny “The Kid” Paret. Days before their third championship fight in 1962, Paret tried to get a psychological edge over his opponent at a press conference. He “outed” Griffith as gay by using an extremely derogatory term.

The night before the fight, Griffith had a premonition that something bad would happen in the ring. He unsuccessfully tried to get out of the fight. Griffith hit Paret 17 times in seven seconds, winning the fight by knockout. Paret fell into a coma and died several days later.

The fight caused the rules for boxing referees to be changed, and some said it effectively ended Friday night fights on television, Blanchard said. Griffith fought in the ring only a few more times. Blanchard said. He was attacked and badly beaten coming out of a gay bar in New York.

“He lived in fear of being outed about his private life,” he said. “That must have been a very traumatic existence at that time. I keep thinking about a man who could reach such a high level of achievement and never really be free  It made me think about first time I won first Grammy.  First thing I did was turn around and kiss my wife, Robin. What would it mean to become a champion and not be able to share that moment publicly with someone you have an intimate relationship with.”

Griffith lived with guilt of killing Paret even though he had played by boxing rules. The fighter and the son of the man he killed agree to met years later in Central Park and the fighter sought forgiveness. Griffith broke down and wept and repeated said he didn’t want to hurt anyone.

That scene ends the opera.

Blanchard tapped longtime movie director and colleague Michael Cristofer, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, to write the opera’s libretto. Blanchard didn’t begin to write the music until he had Cristofer’s lyrics.

He’s pleased that Cristofer chose to tell the story using Griffith at three stages of his life. Each stage is depicted by three different singers -- the young man, the prize fighter and finally an elderly man suffering from dementia. It allows the older two men to advise the young man.

Blanchard says he wishes that as a young man he might have heard wisdom from himself as a middle-aged man.

A working musician

While writing “Champion” has taken “thousands of hours working in his music studio" in his attic at home in New Orleans, Blanchard continues his jazz performance and recording career as the trumpet player and band leader of the Terence Blanchard Quintet.

The first Saturday in May Blanchard and the quintet will bask in the warmth of fans when they play again at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

St. Louisan Roseann Weiss, director of community arts programs at the Regional Arts Commission, recalled a few years ago when Blanchard conducted an orchestra in his symphonic music from Spike Lee's documentary “When the Levees Broke” at Jazz Fest.

“It was so moving it brought me to tears,” she said. “It was just one of those moments when you think this is what music can do.”

That afternoon, 50 yards away in the fest’s Acura outdoor stage Stevie Wonder stopped his performance so his audience could hear Blanchard’s trumpet solo drift over from the Jazz tent.

In a sense, with "Champion," Blanchard is just showing another aspect of what music can do. He is returning to his father’s belief that opera can be great storytelling. The music may bow to the words, but then it soars and expresses the emotion when words fail.

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