Jazz and opera merge in 'Champion,' which will premiere next year
The buzz at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and among jazz buffs has been about the world premiere next year of a locally commissioned jazz opera. That buzz became official Wednesday.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis have co-commissioned a notable New Orleans jazz great, composer Terence Blanchard and Pulitzer-prizewinning playwright and actor Michael Cristofer to collaborate on jazz opera “Champion.”
OTSL will present its world premiere on June 15, 2013, during the company’s regular festival season. The announcement comes just three days before Opera Theatre’s 2012 season opens with “Carmen.”
According to general director Timothy O’Leary, the opera is based on the true story of a match between Benny “The Kid” Paret and Emile Griffith, who fought from the 1950s to 1970s and was three times World Welterweight Champion and twice the World Middleweight Champion. Griffith wins the match in a knock-out that sends Paret into a fatal coma. The survivor struggles with the results of the knock-out for years. Later is nearly killed (away from the boxing ring) by a hoodlum bully for being gay.
Less well known is the taunting Griffith got from his opponent Paret just before their televised 1962 Welterweight Championship. As OTSL notes in a press release, before that fight and in front of a room of sportswriters and boxing officials, Paret mocked Griffith repeatedly with a derogatory term for homosexual. Minutes later in the ring, Griffith landed 17 punches on Paret in seven seconds. Paret was knocked out, went into a coma and died 10 days later. Years later, Griffith’s sexuality as a gay man became public after he was nearly killed by a gang outside a gay bar in New York.
“I kill a man,” Griffith was quoted to have said at the time “and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin.”
As the new opera’s librettist Cristofer sees it, “'Champion' is the story of a man struggling to make peace with himself and to find his place in the world ... as a fighter and a gay man. It's the story of courage in the face of sexual oppression, of love in the face of hate, of grace in the face of physical and mental decline. For me, Emile's story not only asks the question of what it means to be a man. It asks what it means to be a human being."
No other American opera company of this generation has presented such a high percentage of premières as Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Since its founding in 1976, the company has nurtured and presented 22 world premieres and 23 American premieres. For example, this season the company is staging an American premiere of Unsuk Chin and David Henry Hwang’s “Alice in Wonderland.” These fresh works bring music critics from Europe and across the U.S. to Opera Theatre.
Blanchard has made more than 55 recordings. His haunting music and his performances are widely celebrated by jazz aficionados as well as people who don’t know they like jazz. He came from a musical family in his jazz-infused hometown of New Orleans and has played many times with Jazz St. Louis.
Blanchard was not at home in New Orleans when the Hurricane Katrina struck but was glued to television and soon returned.
“I was in disbelief seeing how 80 percent of the city was under water and that my old neighborhood had 12 feet of water. I remember when I was a kid and Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and there were a few feet of water. That scared me then and actually made me fear water.”
After Katrina, filmmaker Spike Lee asked Blanchard to write music for "When the Levees Broke," a documentary shot in New Orleans. After that, Blanchard continued to express his heartbreak over his city’s tragedy in the 13-track work “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).”
Blanchard also wrote the score for Emily Mann’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” now playing on Broadway. And his score for Lucasfilm’s "Red Tails," helped tell the heroic history of the World War II Tuskegee pilots,
"Champion" is Blanchard’s first opera. “My father loved opera,” he said in a prepared statement. “He was a baritone who studied opera, so it was impossible not to feel an emotional connection to him in writing 'Champion.' I was drawn to tell Emile’s story through music from the moment I first heard of his incredible journey. I knew there was no other way to tell this story but through the unique power of opera.”
Cristofer is also flexing new muscles by writing his first opera. In 1977, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play for "The Shadow Box." Cristofer’s other plays include “Amazing Grace,” which the American Theater Critics Award winning Best Play for 1997. An actor, he is in the cast of NBC’s “Smash.”
Casting for the new opera has begun. Denyce Graves has been signed to sing Emelda, the champion Griffith's mother. She also created another opera role, the title role in Toni Morrison’s opera Margaret Garner.
Aubrey Allicock will sing the young Emile. Allicock dazzled many last year in his role at Mamoud in "The Death of Klinghoffer." He arrived in St. Louis this week to begin OTSL rehearsals for his role of the Mad Hatter in the “Alice in Wonderland.” Arthur Woodley, will sing the role of the older Emile. Robert Orth will sing Howie.
“Champion” will have six performance -- June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27 and 30 -- in 2013. Single tickets will go on sale in February.
The new jazz opera should bridge two strong St. Louis audiences, those who love opera and those who love jazz. In St. Louis these audiences already overlap.
“Terence Blanchard is among the best jazz composers and musicians living today,” said Gene Dobbs Bradford, Jazz St. Louis executive director, who introduced Blanchard to Opera Theatre. “We believe that this new opera will be remembered as a major work in the decades to come, both for American jazz and for American opera, as it bridges the two audiences and art forms in a fresh and exciting way.”
The 2013 OTSl season will include Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”; a double bill of two one-act operas: Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”; and Smetana’s “The Kiss.”