Photo Credit Ken Howard
Last night was the opening night of New Orleans jazz trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard’s first opera CHAMPION, with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Michael Cristofer, and based on the life of prize fighter Emile Griffith. To borrow a sports term, it was a knockout!
I had no idea what to expect, really, but thought it perhaps might be an evening of opera singers trying to sing an extended jazz concert, or possibly some sort of hybrid musical theatre event, but what it turned out to be is a deeply touching opera of remarkable depth and sophisticated musical structure.
It is the true story of welter weight boxing champion Emile Griffith, a poor immigrant from the Virgin Islands, who killed his opponent in a nationally televised bout and had to live with the guilt for the rest of his life. The part of the story that wasn’t well known was that Emile Griffith was gay, and that his opponent had taunted him with derogatory epithets before the match.
The cast was remarkable, and featured many artists well known to Dallas Opera audiences, including Denyce Graves as “Emile’s mother” and Arthur Woodley as the older “Emile.” Arthur’s deeply touching performance of a man tormented with guilt was a revelation, and Denyce gave a poignant performance that exploited her lower register to great effect. Also prominently featured were baritone Robert Orth (coming back to Dallas in February to star in Tod Machover’s DEATH AND THE POWERS) as the man who discovered Griffith’s boxing prowess, mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady (who sang the “Hostess” in TDO’s BORIS GODUNOV three seasons ago) as the bawdy proprietress of a gay bar, and Victor Ryan Robertson as Griffith’s opponent in the fatal match (who returns to Dallas for our opening production of CARMEN this fall.)
An artist who is yet to sing in Dallas (but not from lack of our trying to engage him) was baritone Aubrey Allicock as the younger “Emile” who also gave a stunning performance.
Wonderfully directed by James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (and who made his Dallas debut with a production of NABUCCO in 2007) and thoughtfully conducted by George Manahan, this was a performance to be remembered.
Congratulations to everyone involved!