Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 14th 2013 Contents B24
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Friday, June 14, 2013
NEW YORK---Jazz composer Terence Blanchard
couldn t have imagined how timely his opera about
a gay boxer would become when he accepted a
commission three years ago.
Blanchard s Champion---with a libretto by Pulitzer
Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer---is based
on the life of former world welterweight and mid-
dleweight champion Emile Griffith. Its world premiere
at the Opera Theatre of St Louis on Saturday comes
just weeks after NBA centre Jason Collins became
the first active male pro athlete from one of the four
major North American team sports to come out as
gay.Griffith s greatest triumph came in a nationally
televised welterweight title bout in 1962 when he
knocked out Benny "The Kid" Paret by battering
him with 17 punches in seven seconds, sending his
rival into a coma. Paret died ten days later.
At the weigh-in, the Cuban-born Paret had angered
Griffith by using an anti-gay Spanish slur. Thirty
years later, Griffith was beaten and nearly killed after
leaving a gay bar near Times Square.
In a 2008 biography, Griffith came out and dis-
cussed being a bisexual athlete in an era when gays
were not readily accepted. Griffith originally wanted
to design women s hats, but was encouraged by his
employer at a Garment District factory to take up
boxing to support his family in the US Virgin Islands.
Blanchard boxes recreationally and first heard about
Griffith from his friend and trainer, former heavy-
weight champion Michael Bentt. He was inspired to
write the opera by a quote from Griffith in the biog-
raphy: "I kill a man and most people understand and
forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many
people this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an
An abbreviated version of the quote is used in the
opera s climactic closing scene where an aging Griffith
meets Paret s son to seek forgiveness.
"I was just compelled by the whole notion of a
person who could be that accomplished and not
really share the moment of winning the championship
with somebody that he loved," Blanchard said in a
telephone interview from his New Orleans home.
"I immediately thought of the first time I won a
Grammy. My wife was with me and I turned around
and kissed her without thinking about it.
"It speaks volumes of where we are as a society
and how we need to really check ourselves, especially
those of us who call ourselves compassionate human
Benny Paret Jr and Griffith s adopted son, Luis
Rodrigo, are expected to attend the premiere. The
75-year-old Griffith, who lives in a nursing home in
Hempstead, NY, suffers from dementia pugilistica
after more than 100 professional bouts and requires
"So often we think of opera as being kind of irrel-
evant in many ways, but I do believe opera-going
audiences these days ... want something more modern
that reflects contemporary society," said OTSL Artistic
Director James Robinson, who is directing the pro-
When Robinson took over as artistic director in
2008, he was interested in commissioning new works
by American composers and the idea of a jazz opera
came up. Gene Dobbs Bradford, who runs Jazz St
Louis, recommended Blanchard because of his exten-
sive orchestral experience that includes writing scores
for more than 50 films, including most of Spike Lee s.
The 51-year-old Blanchard agreed to undertake
the biggest musical project of his career in part to
honour his father who could not realise his dream
of being an opera singer in an era when companies
didn t hire male black singers. His father performed
with amateur opera groups, and Blanchard grew up
listening to opera recordings at his New Orleans
Blanchard knows his father would have been "over-
joyed" to see that his son had written an opera per-
formed by a largely African-American cast, including
Denyce Graves as Griffith s mother, Arthur Woodley
as old Emile and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile.
An 11-year-old from St Louis, Jordan
Jones, plays Emile as a boy.
Cristofer s first opera libretto tells
Griffith s story in ten rounds.
"I saw in Emile s life the story of a
man who was fighting to reconcile who
he was inside with who he was in the
outside world," said Cristofer. "He was
a young man who wanted to make hats
and sing and play baseball and instead
became a famous and successful prize
fighter. He was confused about his sex-
ual identity and that confusion led to
violence. That violence led to the death
of another man."
Blanchard describes his work as an
"opera in jazz." His score for symphony
orchestra and jazz trio uses the language
of jazz---its rhythms and harmonies---
but leaves little space for improvisation.
He says his biggest challenge was learn-
ing how to write for the individual
singers because each human voice has
its own characteristics.
While writing Champion, Blanchard
also took a new direction with his jazz
quintet. The trumpeter s album Mag-
netic, released in late May, features ten
original compositions by Blanchard and
his bandmates. (AP)
Blanchard opera about gay boxer very timely
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