By Steven Rosen
From Cincinnati Enquirer, 10-30-12
Champion, a highly anticipated jazz opera about boxer Emile Griffith’s tragic life, got a well-received first “public reading” Saturday night at University of Cincinnati’s College – Conservatory of Music.
It is scheduled to premiere in June at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The opera company has commissioned Grammy-winning jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard for the music and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer for the libretto. The “public reading” was a concert version of excerpted scenes from the full opera, followed by a Q&A with Blanchard and others.
It was the culmination of an innovative Opera Fusion: New Works workshop hosted by CCM and Cincinnati Opera and funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The opera’s subject, the Virgin Island-born and New York-based Griffith, became a World Welterweight and Middleweight Champion whose most famous bout was a 1962 pummeling of Cuban-born Benny “The Kid” Paret, who fell into a coma and then died. Paret had already been hit badly in recent fights and maybe wasn’t fit to be in the ring that night. But before the bout, he had called Griffith a “maricon” – Spanish slang for being gay. (Griffith’s sexuality had been the subject of rumors.)
Several decades later, Griffith himself was severely beaten by a gang after leaving a New York gay bar. According to this opera – as Saint Louis Opera’s artistic director James Robinson explained at the performance’s start – that beating triggered the start of Griffith’s progressively worse dementia, a result of the punches received in his long boxing career.
In the opera, even as Griffith struggles with its onset, he arranges to meet Paret’s son to seek forgiveness. Griffith, who is still alive and in need of ongoing nursing care, has been quoted as saying about his life, “I kill a man and most people forgive me. However I love a man and many say this is unforgivable…”
Asked during the Q&A about why Griffith’s story appealed to him, Blanchard said, “When I won my first Grammy, I turned to my wife and gave her a kiss. When I won my (other) Grammys, I gave her a kiss. Here’s a man who won something and couldn’t share it with someone he loves. To me that’s a travesty. It’s tragic that even though we say we live in a free society, some people are not free.”
When the entire opera debuts in June with its full cast, sets, choreographed action and symphonic orchestration (plus a small on-stage jazz ensemble), one will be able to judge how it succeeds as a whole. But Saturday night’s performance of this work-in-progress indicated that the music has great potential.
Twelve seated, black-garbed CCM students performed the vocals on stage at Patricia Corbett Theater to the accompaniment of a four-piece combo with two pianists. Greg Ritchey conducted the musicians while Robinson sat to the side of the stage and came forward to explain upcoming scenes. Individual vocalists, taking assigned character roles, stood for their parts, using gestures, physical movement and facial expressions to bring life to their roles.
The jazz element was unmistakable in the use of rhythmic, syncopated piano and quietly insistent drums and bass. And the singers – especially Derrell Acon as young Emile and Melisa Bonetti as his mother – provided grave foreboding in the “pure” operatic passages and a rocking mixture of call-and-response, spiritual and even seemingly scat-style improvisation at other times. Bonetti memorably encompassed both approaches and had a stand-out aria when Emile’s mother is reunited with her adult son but not sure which of her children he is.
In the darkest scenes, when a jazzy musical lift might have been inappropriate to get across mournful solemnity, the music grew more traditionally classical. Yet even then Elena Kholodova’s sensitive piano work offered some overtones to the undertow. This worked especially well when the older, dementia-struggling Emile – sung powerfully with great melodic clarity by Cesar Mendez Silvagnoli – wondered where he had placed his shoe, asking if one might have wandered away by itself. Cristofer’s words here had a concise, heart-rending directness, like a William Carlos Williams poem.
Knowing what we know about the brain damage that boxing concussions can cause, this scene stripped away whatever sense of hero worship we might have brought to this subject. It made for a quiet, introspective finale with a lasting impact.
Judging from the enthusiastic audience response, the opera may become a champion in more ways than one. One person asked, to general overall approval, if he would have to go all the way to Saint Louis to see the full opera, wishing Cincinnati Opera would itself stage it. (Several of the CCM students will be in the Saint Louis production.)
Building that kind of early audience “buzz” seemed to be a key purpose of sharing Champion with the public at this time. “It is my deep desire and goal to make sure this has a life,” Robinson replied.
Blanchard agreed: “Our payback comes when we see these things live.”