“I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man, and the world wants to kill me.” Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s jazz opera “Champion” makes its East Coast premiere with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. A new opera from the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “Champion” explores the themes of identity, resilience, and redemption. “Champion,” the true story of famed gay boxer Emile Griffith, also coincides with Jeff Sheng’s Kennedy Center photo exhibit Fearless Project featuring LGBT student athletes, blurring the edges between the stage and the world.
So go see “Champion,” embrace the modernity of the opera…
Emile Griffith (Arthur Woodley, Aubrey Allicock, and Samuel Grace) migrates to New York City from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Encouraged by his mother, Emelda Griffith (Denyce Graves), and employer, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges and Samuel Schultz), Emile abandons his love of hat-making and becomes a boxer. As he begins winning matches and continues suppressing his sexuality, Emile prepares to fight Benny “The Kid” Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson) for the welterweight title. Just before the fight, Paret antagonizes Benny, jeering at him and calling him a gay slur. In the ring, Benny lets his anger fuel him and delivers 17 blows to Paret’s head in under seven seconds. Paret slips into a coma and dies, turning Benny’s life upside down. As Benny ages, he must continue to deal with his past, come to grips with himself, and accept the dementia that blends and twists his memories.
The beauty of “Champion” is not only how it examines the disconnect between others’ expectations and our own dreams, but also how it humanizes the solitude of personal struggle. Emile struggles with his sexuality throughout his life, but must also deal with his identity through the lens of dementia. The opera is a show told in memories, with Emile arguing with past versions of himself and living and reliving his experiences. It is a kaleidoscope of memories, playing across the stage and spilling out into our own lives.
One of the most unexpectedly successful pieces of “Champion” was the innovation of the breathtaking set. Used for other shows, “Champion’s” set was minimalist, using screens and projections to tell most of the story. However, Projection Designer Greg Emetaz’s creativity elevated the screens from a mere backdrop to one of the show’s highlights. As Emile and his mother reunited, screens portrayed the hustle and bustle of New York City life. When Emile must leave his beloved hats, the projections of fashion magazines, models, and old-timey advertisements fade away. During Emile’s matches, a barrage of fliers, photos, and video footage washed over the audience and swept me up in the excitement. Every moment was carefully, artistically curated; the projections mirrored and even foreshadowed my own emotional reactions to the performance. “Champion” is worth seeing for the visually stunning set alone.
Like the set, the music for “Champion” is surprising. However, unlike the set, the music is not immediately pleasing. Because blending jazz with more operatic styles is unexpected and new, it’s difficult to predict notes and the beats of the lyrics often seem incompatible with the tempo of the orchestra. Additionally, the vocals are not very cohesive, and the lack of notes in unison sometimes render the performers’ voices a bit thin. However, as Emile’s mind deteriorates, the dissonance in the music begins to mirror the discord of Emile’s thoughts. The modern, slightly eclectic, almost experimental feel of Blanchard’s work brilliantly pulls the audience into the chaos and forces them to live it with Emile.
Washington National Opera hosts a combination of contemporary and classic operas and aims to draw all music lovers to their performances. So go see “Champion,” embrace the modernity of the opera and struggle with the timeless questions of identity and forgiveness. As the lyrics attest, “There ain’t no way to run away from you.”
Advisory: Language and sexual themes.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 25-minute intermission.
“Champion” runs from March 4-18th, 2017 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW Washington, D.C. 20566. Tickets can be ordered online or by calling (202) 467-4600.