Due to the combined forces of Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis, a new opera called Champion will receive its world premiere on June 15 as part of Opera Theatre’s 2013 Festival Season. Champion features a talented team of composers and performers, including music by five-time Grammy Award winning composer Terence Blanchard and libretto by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Michael Cristofer.
Champion is a story of self-discovery – of strength, courage and forgiveness. Prized boxer Emile Griffith recalls his greatest triumph – winning back the title from Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1962. Unfortunately, this would also be his personal tragedy.
Griffith beat Paret so bad, that Paret went into a coma and died 10 days later, leaving a devastating impact on him. Before this televised event, Paret was mocking Griffith by calling him derogatory terms for homosexual to the press. Griffith’s sexuality was revealed years later after he was nearly killed in an attack outside of a New York gay bar that put him in the hospital for four months. Griffith was quoted saying, “I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin.” Years later and suffering from dementia, Griffith meets Paret’s son, Benny Jr., who was two years old at the time of the fight.
This show blends the classic American tradition of jazz with the dynamic power of opera. Blanchard is known for his work as a composer of jazz pieces for small ensembles, his music most recently being played in Emily Mann’s new Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In a Champion press release, Blanchard states, “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, best known for his play, The Shadow Box, claims that Champion’s libretto is a first. In the same release, he says, “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.”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis is one of the leading American opera companies and is known for discovering the hidden talents within many of the finest operatic artists of today. According to Opera Theatre’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Joe Gfaller, the company has a reputation for premiering new pieces of work.
“We produce four operas a season, and the St. Louis community embraces new opera,” Gfaller said. “Opera Theatre of St. Louis has an extraordinary tradition and is the foremost opera house in the country to debut new productions. As of 2012, we have presented 22 world premieres and 23 American premieres. This whole piece is a moving story, and for the national spotlight, it’s the most significant musical event of the year. Terence Blanchard has a gift and great knowledge of how symphony and orchestra works. Many of the characters portrayed on stage will be in attendance for the opening.”
Directing the show is Opera Theatre’s Artistic Director, James Robinson, who has earned great acclaim for his productions. Champion starts off with Griffith in a nursing home getting ready to meet Benny, Jr. for the first time. Griffith will be looking back at his life in a series of flashbacks. The opera will be in 10 rounds, with an announcer guiding the audience.
“I was passionate about this subject, looked at the idea, and thought “what a powerful story, let’s move forward with it,”” Robinson said. “I’ve been working with the development, so it would be a natural thing to direct it. One of the greatest things is that I’m totally in love with the subject matter. It’s a very brave and progressive subject for an opera…they can be quite dusty. But I think it’s very compelling, very character driven, very relevant. I’m in love with the project. It’s about people embracing subjects about who we are as a society. Terrence has written terrific music for it; it’s really a bold new project.”
At this writing, Champion has only been through a series of workshops. Rehearsals are to begin May 9.
“Opera singers don’t always work with jazz artists,” Robinson said. “Jazz is about improvisation and opera is more literal. At the first workshop, the opera singers were trying to perform what Terence wrote on the page, and it was a disappointed fashion. We discovered we needed to use the word “groove” – it was the word of the day. What groove was in the piece? Once they found out, the singers allowed themselves to be much more flexible. Two worlds such as jazz and opera don’t usually form together, but we learned from each other. At the end of the day, we were able to collaborate with each other’s worlds.”
Champion’s cast includes Denyce Graves (Emile’s mother), Arthur Woodley (older Emile), Robert Orth (Emile’s trainer), Meredith Arwady (Bar owner Kathy) , Victor Ryan Robertson (doubling as Benny “The Kid” Paret and Benny Jr.), Brian Arreola (Emile’s adopted son) and Aubrey Allicock (young Emile).
Allicock has performed previously at Opera Theatre in 2011 as Mamoud in The Death of Klinghoffer and as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland last year. He
“You need to bring an element of improvisation in the jazz element, but sing with an operatic voice,” Allicock said. “The story itself is touching. The libretto is tough, but it’s going to take me to be brave to play these scenes well and get into the character. I’ve been thinking about how to do that, how to approach the character and let it consume me.”
Before approaching his character, Allicock had to research his character.
“A lot of people my age don’t know this story. I had to research it myself as to see what it’s all about. It’s definitely worth young audiences to come out and see this show. I hope they walk away with history and understand what these people went through and lost and gained in the end. Older generations know what this story is about and remember how big it was.”
The two and a half hour show will produce six performances: June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27 and 30. Tickets are now available as part of a subscription to Opera Theatre, but single tickets will go on sale Feb. 23. According to Gfaller, some seating is already sold out.
For more information on Champion or Opera Theatre of St. Louis, visit ExperienceOpera.org.
By DENNY PATTERSON - WRITER
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