Boston Lyric Opera Honors Lesser-Known Boxer in ‘Champion: An Opera in Jazz’
“Champion: An Opera in Jazz” at the Boston Lyric Opera is a concert-style production that tells the story of boxer Emile Griffith, a black man born in Saint Thomas. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960s, Griffith was openly bisexual. The opera covers his entire life, including his most famous fight, a 1962 title fight with Benny Paret. Paret insulted Griffith’s sexuality before the fight, and in the ensuing boxing match, an enraged Griffith knocked Perry out so brutally that he later died. Terence Blanchard, the composer of the opera, joins the GBH’s All things Considered host Arun Rath to talk about the show. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Arun Rat: Let’s just dig in talking about this opera and this amazing individual. I don’t think I would have known him if it wasn’t for your opera, which makes it kind of weird because he’s such an incredible individual.
Terence Blanchard: Emile Griffith was an incredible fighter – a reluctant fighter, because… he wanted to be a dancer.
I think what’s amazing about his story to me is that it’s about redemption and his inner strength, you know, dealing with his sexuality in a time when people weren’t openly proclaiming who they were , being unveiled at a press conference, and then subsequently killing his opponent by putting him into a coma – and having his life spin out of control afterward. But I think one of the main things [that struck me] of all his experiences is the comment he made and in the last years of his life where he said, “I killed a man and the world forgives me; I love a man and the world wants to kill me.” That particular line was the reason I wanted to do this story. It really hit me hard to think that someone could reach the highest level of success in any endeavor he was running towards and couldn’t share that openly with someone they loved, which broke my heart.
Rat : It’s amazing because he was openly bisexual at a time when no one was doing that.
Blanchard: I mean, nobody did that. No one was talking about it, especially in the sports world. People may have known your gender identity, but they didn’t really talk about it. And with Benny Paret – those two guys had fought twice – and Benny was trying to find a way to get an edge over Emile in that third fight. So he just tried to get inside his head and exposed him at a press conference.
Rat : One would think, as you now mention, that he triumphed in the ring, but his opponent died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Who stayed with him?
Blanchard: He stayed with him. In the opera we have a line that says you hit it 17 times in less than 7 seconds because that’s what happened. Benny Paret backs into a corner and Emile chases him. Now the amazing thing and the sad thing after that is that Emile kept fighting. And if you look at some of his fights, every time someone came back to a corner, he wouldn’t follow them, because the memory of killing Benny Paret – who was his friend, they played basketball together – it haunted him. really.
Rat : Now, in the opera, breaking down this incredible life, you have three different individuals playing it at different stages of its life, right?
Blanchard: Yeah. Michael Cristofer, who is the librettist, we talked to and we talked about how we wanted to see Emile grow up as a kid. And so that might give us a frame of reference. And we needed to see him as a fighter, obviously living his life, the young man. But it’s all told through the thoughts and memories of all the Emiles who have dementia, who are on their way to meet Benny Perry Jr., you know, to have that meeting in Central Park. And so the opera begins. And the whole opera is based on his life flashing past him and him coming back and being with his memories.
Rat : You were, among other things, one of our greatest composers of film music in America. And it’s a life that, upon hearing the story told, feels like it should have been made into a movie. When you’re writing an opera, it’s obviously a very different kind of thing. But does any of your experience writing this kind of narrative-style music fit into that process for you?
Blanchard: Well, that’s one of the reasons they commissioned me to do it. In a way it’s because telling the story or I’m helping a director tell a story in a movie, there’s a lot of moments where it’s not about the music, it’s is it really about an emotion or is it really about an atmospheric sound or creating tension or creating drama. In an opera, the music is there all the time, so you have to oscillate between these moments where you have very beautiful melodic things sung in drama, in tension, in comedy even in certain respects. So I think, you know, my background in film definitely helped me in that regard. But man, learning to write for voice was a totally different thing.
Rat : Writing for the voice and writing for a really amazing character, right?
Blanchard: Yes. Well, the thing about writing for the character is, you know, you want to make sure that you kind of embody everything that the character has. So for me it implies how did he speak? Try to make all melodic lines natural. It’s really about how someone would say something? How would they say it in a natural voice and then try to pick up the beat from that and write a melody to it.
Rat : And the life again we’re talking about. Think about things that are lyrical and the trajectory of his life. It is definitely opera.
Blanchard: Of course. Going from Saint Lucia to New York and meeting his mother and you meeting his mother in New York, and she didn’t recognize him at first. Going from that to being a welterweight champion to being portrayed as a gay man. There are so many things in his life that were just amazing. It’s amazing how he’s had this level of success with so many distractions in his life.
Rat : Is there anything so complicated or difficult about him to understand? What’s the reason more people don’t know about it?
Blanchard: I don’t know why a lot of people don’t know about it because that fight was part of a series called Friday Night Fights. And because of that fight, boxing was taken off the air for about a decade, I think, until stricter regulations were put in place. But he is considered one of the greatest of all time. When we think of Ezzard Charles, we think of Joe Louis, we think of all these people, the name of Emile Griffith is among the best of them.
Rat : Tell us about this production, how it came to Boston Lyric Opera, because we’re so excited to have it here.
Blanchard: I was excited when Boston called and said they wanted to produce “Champion” years ago — and all of a sudden the pandemic hit, and then it sort of kinda messed things up. But I’m glad to see that we’re back on track. And I’m excited because, you know, Boston is one of those cities that has a serious musical history. I taught there for several years, I played there, I still play there with my own band. So having the heart to come is a real honor and pleasure for me.