Terence Blanchard’s second opera at the Met is actually the first he penned, but this performance is historically significant in a new way. His second, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, was the first opera by a Black composer ever staged at the Met. Now, with the staging of Champion, Blanchard has become the second living composer in history to have operas at the Met in back-to-back seasons. His predecessor was Richard Strauss.
Champion premiered in 2013 with Opera St. Louis, a co-commission of that ensemble and Jazz St. Louis. It portrays the life of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith—a life one could easily distill down into a single fateful moment: a match at Madison Square Garden against Cuban boxer Benny “Kid” Paret, Jr. on March 24th, 1962. When the match began, Paret whispered homophobic slurs into Griffith’s ear, and Griffith rained down punches on Paret’s head, sending his rival into a coma from which he never emerged. He walked away with the champion title, but a brain hemorrhage took Paret’s life ten days later, and Griffith was haunted by his death until his own, which occurred shortly after the premiere of Blanchard’s opera. Griffith died from degenerative encephalitis caused by repeated traumatic brain injuries, acquired over years of fights, in and out of the ring.
In Champion, Blanchard and his librettist Michael Cristofer attempt to give form to Griffith’s life outside that fateful match, focusing on his troubled past and his double life with mixed results. I admired 2021’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones for its unflinching portrayal of the emotional aftermath of childhood trauma, but Blanchard’s first opera feels looser than Fire. It circles around but sometimes feints away from tough questions about guilt, truth, celebrity and responsibility.
There are moments when Blanchard’s score displays an almost dizzying scope, ranging from solid sheets of sound that slam into the audience with visceral force to gentle eddies of solo work and tender lyricism. Blanchard’s voice writing is weaker in Champion than in Fire, both in terms of interest and the composer’s grasp of vocal range and tessitura, but the score is occasionally more captivating, if less consistent. As happened in Fire, the vocal lines are often drowned out by the sea of orchestral textures, which thrum with energy and presence, enlivened by Blanchard’s jazz-infused style.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the score with fiery intensity but occasionally gets carried away in Blanchard’s vast playground of sounds and leaves his singers to fight it out alone. Despite this challenge, Ryan Speedo Green, as the younger Emile, is triumphant, delivering a sterling vocal performance. He seems utterly indefatigable while unleashing reams of vigorous and balanced sound, moving through Camille A. Brown’s choreography—which is dynamic and varied throughout, as if endeavoring to show the full scope of the Black movement—with agility, and reveals a frighteningly toned physique that shows his commitment to the character.
Eric Owens, as a much older Emile languishing in a New Jersey nursing home, is increasingly affecting as the night goes on. This is a testament to Owens’ acting skills, as this version of the boxer is the less well-drawn of the two adult versions in the opera: the elderly Emile is often confused and speaks mainly in repetitive metaphors about shoes. Throughout, Owens moves gingerly and with great tenderness, wielding his steely bass with a light touch that goes miles for his character.
While the Emiles fare well with Blanchard’s massive orchestra, the other two leads are not so lucky. As Emile’s slimy manager Howie, tenor Paul Groves is left to shout his way through declamatory sections. Latonia Moore has a similar challenge as Emile’s mother Emelda; the extremes of range called for by the score bring out an unwelcome harshness and even pitchiness to her sound, though her aria in the second act coaxes out affecting new shades from her voice.
There were other standouts in the wider ensemble. Stephanie Blythe threatened to walk away with the show as lesbian impresaria Kathy Hagen of Hagen’s Hole, the bar where Emile first flirts with queer desire. Her voice and persona are perfectly suited to this role—she is equal parts raunchy and generous as she presides over a passel of drag queens and dancing boys. As Griffith’s foster son, Luis, Chauncey Packer shows himself yet again to be adept at making clear and compelling dramatic choices given even the thinnest of characterizations. He is equally adept at sending his brilliant and boundless tenor sailing like an arrow over the pit. And finally, Brittany Renee sings with supple grace and charm, despite her small role as Griffith’s wife Sadie.
Unfortunately, all the singers suffer from James Robinson’s underbaked characterizations and the tonal whiplash of the text. Champion conveys comedy, dread and sympathy, rather haphazardly at times, and it proceeds quickly over unconnected scenes in Griffith’s life. The voice of an announcer (Lee Wilkoff) recurs as a way to smooth these transitions, but his humorous ad-libs and impatience to get on with the match feel utterly at odds with both Blanchard’s music and the subject matter. While the production looks beautiful, with Allen Moyer’s sleek sets and Greg Emetaz’s often striking use of projections, it begins to wear as the night goes on, especially as the tone-shifting only gets worse. Robinson does little to rectify these issues, and the singers have trouble calibrating their places in changing dramatic registers.
Moore and Groves, whose characters are the least thought-through in the text, receive the shortest end of this particular stick. Moore’s Emelda veers into uncomfortably stereotypical territory as the bad prostitute mommy, while Groves’s Howie has quite a bit of Paulie Walnuts in his character before an abrupt heel-turn in the second act. Similarly, while often celebratory, the vision of queerness presented by Blythe’s merry band feels better suited to a different sort of show—something more straightforwardly funny—which in turn, undermines a crucial thread in Griffith’s story. The production fares best in the climactic fight scene; the choreography feels appropriately vivid, as does the sense of slowly creeping dread the audience feels as Paret (a softly menacing Eric Greene) lies unconscious in the ring. The scene is made all the more horrible by the still-celebrating crowd.
Cristofer’s libretto leans too heavily on some of its more meager metaphors and vaguest poetic devices (hats, shoes, baseball bats) and ironically, tends to pull its emotional punches in the investigation either of Griffith’s queer desire or his feelings after killing Paret. In exploring the former, it fails by not giving any version of Emile enough of a chance to explore or react to his desires in his own words or even to connect in an extended way with a lover. In exploring the latter, the opera too quickly seeks to shift responsibility away from Griffith. It leans hard on his initial reluctance to box (he’s just a nice boy who wants to make hats), the pressure put on him by Howie and Emelda and an untreated injury of Paret’s. The parade of what-ifs is ultimately only background to the moral and ethical questions raised by his story because, in the end, Griffith did kill Paret.
The libretto seems afraid to let his guilt breathe. I say this not because I’m interested in exonerating or condemning Griffith, but because I want to grant him the full dignity of his guilt. His strength as a character lies largely in his capacity to feel this death when a weaker spirit could convince himself that it was a justified retaliation for homophobic abuse or simply an accident… a hazard of the sport. This is the heart of Griffith: the evidence of his fundamental humanity, even when his mind is nearly all gone. Again, Eric Owens is to be complimented because he filled in most of the emotional blanks.
The finest line of the opera comes at the end when the older Emile says: “I kill a man, and the world forgave me, but I love a man, and the world wants to kill me.” From the press surrounding the St. Louis premiere, it seems these were words spoken by Griffith himself in conversation with the opera’s creators. Here, we get what we wanted all along: Griffith recognizing something about queerness, boxing and forgiveness; voicing his understanding; and asking us to think with him. It subtly touches on how American sports culture so quickly commodifies Black men’s bodies, how it stages violence as entertainment with little thought to the physical and emotional ramifications of that violence and how queer Black men struggle to define themselves within a system that makes their survival contingent on their conformation to violently-enforced heterosexuality. It’s the opera’s best moment because it lets its subject speak with amazing clarity, cutting through to us with all the force of a punch.
Champion continues at the Metropolitan Opera through May 13.