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'Champion' hopes blend of jazz and opera delivers knockout punch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2013: Six and a half years ago leaders of Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis met to consider commissioning an American opera in the jazz style.

They’ve nursed it, rehearsed it and will give birth to “Champion,” by composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Michael Christofer, at 8 p.m., Sat., June 15.

“Champion” is Opera Theatre's 24th world premiere in its 38 seasons. Timothy O’Leary, OTSL's general director, and Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, hope this new American opera will have a long life and join the short list of successful American operas in the jazz idiom, such as Missourian Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” which OTSL presented in 2000, and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.“ Commissioning “Champion” underlines that operas need not be based on European-style music or themes.

What eventually became "Champion" went through something of an evolution. At that first meeting in December 2006, Charles MacKay, then OTSL general director, and Bradford talked about commissioning a 30-minute opera to take to schools. MacKay suggested the opera be about the first African-American world heavyweight champ Jack Johnson.

In the fall of 2008, after Timothy O’Leary replaced MacKay, the ideas expanded. O’Leary and OTSL artistic director Jim Robinson wanted a jazz opera as a main stage production. O’Leary asked Bradford to suggest a jazz composer.

“Right off the top of my head, without reservations, I said Terence,” Bradford said. “And I knew that his father had sung opera.”

A five-time Granny-winning composer, Blanchard is the most prolific jazz composer of his generations. Bradford knew the trumpeter had written for orchestra in dozens of movie scores beginning in his mid-30s with Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” At the time, Blanchard was getting ready to score the movie "Red Tails," Lucasfilm's story of the Tuskegee airmen.

What O'Leary and Bradford didn't know when they commissioned Blanchard is that Blanchard boxed for physical conditioning. The amateur boxer told O’Leary and Bradford a different boxing story than the one about Johnson. Blanchard told them a haunting story about a living prizefighter, Emile Griffith -- a tale Blanchard had learned years before from his boxing trainer Michael Brentt, a former heavyweight champion.

The pair of St. Louis music organizations agreed to the story and engaged Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Christofer, who is also a screen writer, stage director and actor (Jerry in NBC’s “Smash”).

The two men crafted “Champion” on laptops and notebooks, in quiet minutes back stage, on airplanes and on “vacations.” (In between Blanchard also wrote the score for the recent Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” appeared in concert as a trumpeter with his quintet and taught music at two universities.)

Christofer’s words came first. Then came Blanchard's music. Three workshops (stand-up, script-in-hand, private performances) were given by three different groups of singers. Hearing the opera helped Blanchard, Christofer and artistic director Jim Robinson om focus the story, deepen its intensity and smooth over the rough spots.

Christofer attended three rehearsals and Blanchard has been at more than half of them, leaving only to keep long-standing dates promoting his quintet new album “Magnetic.”

“There were a lot of revisions after that third workshop at (The University of) Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music,” baritone Aubrey Allicock said. He sings prizefighter Emile Griffith in his prime, two other singers portray him as boy and then as a confused  man in his late 60s.

Music scores were sent to the cast last August. Learning parts was a challenge because unlike a Verdi or Britten opera, the orchestra parts -- even the piano part -- were unfinished, Allicock said.

“So you try to learn the part but don’t know what music will be supporting your voice,” Allicock said.

After the October Ohio workshop he scrambled to pencil in changes. Earlier this year he worked with Juilliard acting professor Eve Shapiro on his spoken lines in “Champion.”

“She fell in love with the opera so she helped me with words in the music, too,” he said. His vocal professor Robert White worked on the music with him.

Learning his music became easier in March when the piano and orchestra parts arrived, Allicock said. Composer arranger Howard Drossin, who has worked on albums and movies with Blanchard and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock provided additional orchestrations for the score.

“We are still making little changes,” Allicock said. “Usually you are trying to emulate what has always been done in the role in the past, when you have a Mozart role, for instance.”

Two years ago the bass baritone won praise for his role of terrorist Mahmoud in OTSL’s revival of John Adams' “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

“In Klinghoffer, you sing what John Adams has written on the page and you sing it exactly,” Allicock said. “Creating a role is so exciting. It’s a blessing to have the composer and the librettist seated right there at rehearsals. Terence is more concerned about the arc of the story, as long as you are comfortable singing his music. Terrence is wonderful about not wanting us to strain our voices. Some of the notes he had written for me were too high for my voice, so he fixed it. He keeps thanking us. We are grateful. He is always thinking of the singers.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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