Jessica and I saw *Champion* at the Met on April 25, 2023. It's the first opera written by Terence Blanchard, it had its premiere at Opera Theatre of St Louis in 2013. The Met did Blanchard's second opera, *Fire Shut Up in My Bones,* to open last season and I was very impressed with it. I was much less impressed with *Champion.* I walked out at intermission.
The libretto was written by Michael Cristofer. He and Blanchard were drawn to the real life story of boxer Emile Griffith, who came to New York from St. Thomas in the 1950s. The first act ended with the fight that he's best known for, a 1962 welterweight title fight with Benny Paret. Paret taunted Griffith during the weigh-in, calling him "maricón," Spanish slang for "faggot." Griffith was secretly a bisexual and this set him off. Griffith hit Paret so hard and so many times in round 12 that Paret was knocked unconscious, fell into a coma, and died 10 days later.
Bad news first? The repetitions in the opera were greatly aggravating. I just looked at my review of *Fire Shut Up in My Bones* and saw that Blanchard had done the same thing in that piece. It got on my nerves in that but drove me nutty in this. There was a scene early in the show where Emile's mother takes him to a hatmaker and asks the hatmaker to give him a job. The three of them went through a repetitive bit of innocuous sung dialogue, maybe five minutes long - - then then did a rewind and did the whole thing AGAIN. I'm sure there were little tweaks of difference in the vocal lines and the orchestration but it was more or less a repeat and a total waste of time.
One other thing: the vocal lines were often badly written, especially for the role of Emile's mother. Her lines were badly placed, either in a register that was too low, or if it was high, the approach to the note was awkward. This role was played by Latonia Moore at the Met - - she's one of the worlds leading Aidas so please, give her something worthy of her talents, something glamorous to sing.
Good news: as in *Fire Shut Up in My Bones,* the storytelling happened in the music. This is often not the case in new operas, and it gives me hope that Blanchard is truly an opera composer. The highlight was a trio between three singers all playing Emile in different stages of his life: Ethan Joseph as the little boy, Ryan Speedo Green as the young man, and Eric Owens as the older man. It was insightful, rich, and compelling.
Owens and Green were both amazing in their roles. They're wonderfully gifted singing actors who bring a lot of artistry to their performances. I've seen Owens many times at the Met and elsewhere, his performance was no surprise. I'd seen Green in a few small roles but this was his first leading role at the Met. He delivered the goods, he's the real deal. Here he is singing his first act aria:
There were two other Met veterans in smaller roles, singers who were headliners in the 90s and 00s but haven't been doing too much of note at the Met lately. Stephanie Blythe played the owner of a gay bar that Griffith goes to and Paul Groves was Griffith's trainer. Both were wonderful and it was a special treat to see them doing good work in a high-profile piece like this.
I'll share Jessica's take on the show, starting with some insightful views on the production (directed by James Robinson, set design by Allen Moyer):
"I felt like the creators of this production were overly smitten with the set; i found it excessive and overused. Giant flashing red lights behind the boxing ring and also the disco floor just felt like a panicky ploy to confuse me and make me think i was at a regular-person musical; i was hoping for something much more dignified that would have allowed the story to stand on its own. And i strongly agree that the little boy was underutilized, i found his to be the strongest and most compelling performance of the whole show, by far. Lastly, correct me if i'm wrong, but i couldn't hear a lot of the singers above the musicians, and i thought that just seemed like bad sound directing - shouldn't i have been able to hear all the performers equally? Weird!"