A good tragic opera is not coy. It does not dance on the edges of feeling. It is about love and death, joy and guilt, unexpected sorrow and regret. Done well, with great voices, it will flatten you like a hurricane and leave you weeping and pondering life’s big questions.
“Champion,” by composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Michael Cristofer, is just this kind of fine tragic opera—soulful and devastating. Directed by James Robinson, who also steered its 2013 St. Louis debut, “Champion” tells the sad, true story of Emile Griffith, a boxing champ who threw a fatal punch in the ring in 1962 after being taunted for being gay by his rival. Throughout the opera, Emile wrestles with guilt over both the death and shame over his sexuality.
In its Chicago premiere, “Champion” has strong vocal performances, exuberant dancing and a creative, multi-level set by Allen Moyer, which uses projected images of real newspaper headlines and boxing posters to capture the era. Though it drags a bit, this “opera in jazz” has profound cumulative emotional power. Trimmed by fifteen minutes, it could be truly great.
This is a memory story, with Emile played by three fine singers—Reginald Smith, Jr. and Justin Austin as older and younger versions of the adult Emile, and sixth-grader Naya James as the child Emile. Instead of keeping them separate, as is done in most theatrical biographies, the old Emile can watch the sufferings of his younger selves.
The opera begins with old Emile so debilitated by boxer’s dementia that he has a hard time getting dressed. Smith sings in his dark, velvety baritone, “My shoe goes where it goes. And I go where?” He is helped by his adopted son and caretaker, Luis, played with humor and tenderness by tenor Martin Luther Clark.
The opera then goes into the past, with Austin as a powerfully built young man from the Virgin Islands who likes to make hats and play baseball. After singing with brightly costumed carnival dancers about his prospects (“Every day is my day”), he goes to New York to seek his fortune. There he finds his mother Emelda, played by the astonishing Chicago soprano Whitney Morrison, who can’t remember which of her seven abandoned children he is.
Emelda leads him to the man who will become his coach (tenor Paul Groves). Emile reluctantly learns to box and find his “killer” instinct. He seeks solace at night in gay bars but feels he has the devil inside him.
Conducted by Lyric music director Enrique Mazzola, Blanchard’s score is lush and beautiful—sometimes using full orchestration, sometimes a jazz combo. The music particularly shines in arias sung by Smith, Austin and Morrison. Before his tragic fight with Benny “Kid” Paret (splendidly sung on opening night by baritone Sankara Harouna, subbing for an indisposed Leroy Davis), Austin delivers the meditative “What makes a man a man?” This is the heart of the opera—showing Emile’s tough search for identity.
In the second act, Morrison stuns with a song about Emelda’s past as a young girl just trying to get by (“The sea has no back door…”). Under her voice is just a bass, thrumming like the ocean in the dark.
Emile eventually seeks forgiveness from Benny’s son (also Harouna). This scene goes on a bit long, as do some of the earlier, pre-fight scenes. “Champion” includes a non-singing role—a boxing announcer who makes comic comments about the action. While veteran Chicago actor Larry Yando is great in this part, it clashes with the opera’s overall tone. But these are small issues in an otherwise strong show.
Blanchard also composed “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” from Lyric’s 2021-2022 season. It’s cheering to see the Lyric be so open to quality new work—along with great re-imaginings of traditional operas like “The Magic Flute”—and to see a more diverse crowd at the gilded, Art Deco theater. This is the way to keep the art form alive.
“Champion” is on stage at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker, through February 11. Tickets available at lyricopera.org.