His Hat in the Ring

This month, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presents the world premiere of Champion, Terence Blanchard's new "opera in jazz" about the extraordinary life and career of the boxer Emile Griffith.

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A photo from a rehearsal of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2013 World Premiere of Champion, featuring (left to right) Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny "The Kid" Paret, Robert Orth as Howie Albert, Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith, Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith and Arthur Woodley as Emile Griffith (above stage)
© Ken Howard, 2013
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Composer Blanchard

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James Robinson
© Dario Acosta 2013

The relationship between opera and boxing might seem to begin and end with Martin Scorsese's nod to Cavalleria Rusticana in the opening credits of Ranging Bull. Yet Grammy Award-winning trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader Terence Blanchard is convinced that there's more to be heard from the unlikely pair. Blanchard's Champion, an "opera in jazz," takes the stage this month in its world premiere at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A meditation on the life and career of one of the most complicated figures in American sports history, Champion recounts the true story of Emile Griffith — the closeted boxer who in 1962 won the World Welterweight Championship in a fatal bout that claimed the life of an opponent who, months before, had taunted him with a gay slur.

This past winter, across the street from the legendary Birdland — where his quintet was ensconced in a run of shows — Blanchard and OTSL artistic director James Robinson, the work's director, held court about Champion's inception at a press luncheon, which OPERA NEWS attended.

An opera about about a boxer might take some people by surprise. I think audiences today have come to expect adaptations of weighty, classical novels. How did this commission come about?  

JAMES ROBINSON: When I was appointed artistic director at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2008, the incoming general director Timothy O'Leary and I were interested in really expanding the repertoire and taking on an interesting piece. So the idea had been floated to do a jazz opera, whatever that might be. We were speaking with Gene Dobbs Bradford, who runs Jazz St. Louis, and asked him who might write a new work for us. At the top of his list — the only person he mentioned to us, really — was Terence. We set up a meeting with Terence, who was in New York a few years ago, then brought him to St. Louis to see some of the works we were doing — La Bohème, The Ghosts of Versailles, Salome. He didn't run from the theater screaming, so I thought that was a good sign. But we gave him a few weeks to think about what he might want to take on as an opera subject. He came back to us and said, "I want to write an opera on the life of Emile Griffith." Our response was, "Fantastic! Who is Emile Griffith?" This is where Google really helped. Terence told me about the book and about the documentary, Ring of Fire, and we fell in love with the subject. Terence had worked with Michael Cristofer, who is a Tony Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who has worked in film. He has crafted the libretto based on Griffith's life. 

What is fascinating, is that I can't think of too many operas written on a sports subject. That being said, it's not really an opera about boxing. It's really about the human spirit. I hate saying that word in many ways, because it sounds so overplayed, so overused. But it's really about somebody finding out about who he is and coming to terms with a tragedy that happened because the guy was doing his job. 

TERENCE BLANCHARD: When Jim contacted me about composing an opera, I wanted to make sure that he had the right person, first of all. I thought, maybe there's another Terence Blanchard out there that he was thinking about. Nobody has ever asked me to write an opera. What's interesting though, is that I grew up listening to opera because my father studied opera — he was a baritone. He never sang professionally, but that was his love. So I saw this as a great opportunity. 

When it came time to pick a topic — I've been a big fight fan for a number of years. One of my best friends  is Michael Bentt — he used to be a heavyweight champion for a little while. He beat Tommy Morrison for the title. He's the one that introduced me to the story about Emile Griffiths. I remember that when I started reading the book, Nine Ten and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith, I immediately thought of the first time I ever won a Grammy award. My wife was with me and as soon as they called my name, I stood up and I kissed her. I thought about Emile — as a person he was kind of a reluctant fighter. I couldn't imagine reaching the pinnacle of his sport, becoming the champion and not being able to share that with somebody that he loved. That had to be an awful experience. Not only to sustain that, but then go through the pain and agony of killing a man, which is something most of us never experience. To me, his life was filled with drama and stories that I think are relevant to the things that we are dealing with in our country right now. When I started reading the book, there was one line in particular that convinced me that this was a good subject for an opera. He writes, "I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to many people this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person." 

How did you go about organizing Griffith's story into a narrative? 

TB: What is brilliant about what Michael Cristofer has done with the libretto is that we tackle it from a few different aspects of Emile's life. We actually have three Emiles — in one part, there's even a fourth Emile. We have a Young Emile, we have Emile and then an Old Emile. We experience his life through these various incarnations of him. Then at certain points in the opera, they even have their own discussions, which I found very fascinating. I'm fifty now, but I can still remember being very adamant about some points when I was twenty-five that I've totally turned around about since. I can see myself having this argument, trying to convince my younger self, that my point of view needed to be reexamined. 

JR: At this moment in his life, the real Emile Griffith is in Hempstead, Long Island, in a nursing home. He suffers from complete dementia. Tim O'Leary and I went up to visit him. His adopted son and companion introduced him to us. He's not really responsive. There is something in his eyes, though. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. Going to this nursing home where there are photographs of him on the walls from when he was the champ, and with disadvantaged kids who sent him letters and pictures of him in the community — it was fascinating. 

But something that Michael has set up in the libretto — which I think is quite beautiful and quite bold and also has its own type of relevance — is that the story is being told from Emile's perspective, but he is suffering from dementia in the opera. So the flashbacks are quite fractured at times. Emile struggles just to get himself dressed, to try to remember what he is going to do. But the ultimate event in the opera is one of forgiveness — the climax is the encounter between Emile and the son of the man that he killed, Benny Paret, Jr. Emile struggles to keep his mind focused so that he can actually ask for forgiveness. It's a beautiful, beautiful device, and it also allows us to go on this really interesting journey. 

Terence, how did you find writing for the voice? Did your experience as a trumpet player have an influence on your approach?  

TB: As a jazz musician and film composer, I'm used to writing for orchestra and for instruments. When you say trombone, I begin to think in a certain range. I'm not thinking about the person, I'm thinking about the color of the instrument. Writing for opera is a totally different experience, because the human voice has its own characteristics based on the person. That was a big, big challenge for me. 

My trumpet playing affected how I wrote for the voice, but I would say that my entire musical experience played a role here. Growing up in the church played a role. For me, one of the things that was great about these guys — Jim and [OTSL music director] Stephen Lord — was that they would constantly say, "Where are we in the story?" For me, that became the issue. I started to think like a film composer. If we're in this part of the story, and we know we're going here, then maybe I don't need as much here because the payoff is going to be later on. But when we get to the payoff, I'm thinking of the experiences I've had playing trumpet. I'm thinking about all of the great singers I've experienced in the church who nobody knows — people and performers who will sing something heartfelt and something will just overcome them that goes well beyond music. I think of my father listening to great opera. All of those things come to bear. There is that universal thing, no matter what music you're listening to, that touches the soul. That is what we were going for. 

Terence, talk a little bit about your compositional process. How was your approach different than how you might compose a straightforward jazz piece or a film score?  

TB: Since this is the first time that I've approached composing an opera — I never even tried to even write music with lyrics, let alone a libretto — my initial process was going through the libretto and reading it out loud. As I would read it, I tried to simulate the musical rhythms of it being spoken. I don't want to ruffle any feathers, but, when I started, I took the position that I didn't want to do anything that would go against what the voice does naturally. So as I would speak, I would write down the rhythmic notation with the libretto's words written on top. When I would finish a scene, I would go back and read it and start thinking about inflections. What is the most important part of a sentence? What is the most important part of the story? I tried to build the melodic line based off of that. I worked at the piano, notated by hand. Then I would go in and, depending on the scene, start to create harmonic palettes, create counter lines, rhythmic counterpoint. 

I began to flesh out the orchestration much later. But I basically had all of the melodic and harmonic material done when we started workshopping the piece, which was very, very informative for me. You can sit in your studio, and you can conceive of anything, thinking, 'Oh, this will be great!' But then when you hear somebody sing it ... it's another story. There is one scene where Robert Orth, who is playing the trainer, is giving Emile a speech. When I wrote it in my mind, I was thinking of a baritone who would just belt this out. Well, I had written it in a range of his voice that just didn't speak. I felt sorry for the poor guy, he was trying, but it didn't have the right presence. So I went back and looked at it again. I had listened to him sing some other things, and I had noticed the music where his voice would really bloom. So I went back and wrote it in the range that really spoke for him and for the scene.

The orchestration was the easiest thing for me. The hardest thing was really following the line of the story. For the most part, when you are writing a jazz composition, you have your first and second themes, and then what we call bridge — in classical music, you may call it a transitional phrase. In opera, sometimes that doesn't exist because of the nature of the line, the word. Those things create their own structure. That was the thing that was probably the hardest for me to get around. 

JR: It's been an interesting collaboration in that way. One very funny thing was that on the first day of the first workshop, we had young opera singers whom we knew to be good musicians, and they had very dutifully learned every note and every rhythm on the page. We sat down and Terence was very nervous when they started. I remember him saying, "a jazz musician will never look at four straight eighth notes and play four straight eighth notes." Opera singers are always told to be very specific about learning every note and every rhythm. These singers were trying very hard to figure out what this was all about. So there were a couple of hours and a lot of nodding. It was very polite. Finally, the sky opened up in a good way when someone asked, "Terence, what is that rhythm there? What is the feel?" And, in the coolest possible way, Terrence said, "You mean the groove?" It was the groove! Suddenly, we all knew what the groove was, and once the groove was established, the singers totally got what it was about. They knew how to make the music come off the page. It was two worlds trying very politely to come together and to find that one word, that one way of communicating. 

Has composing an opera influenced your approach to jazz at all?  

TB: It's definitely had an impact. I can tell you exactly how. Being a jazz musician who came along in the era that I have, I've listened to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. What did those guys do? They play all over the range of the instrument. In opera, you can do that as well, but for this opera one of the things I had to learn how to do was condense the drama. Instead of things being wide, there are some moments when the drama would build, but it would be more concentrated. The intervalic relationships are smaller. There are a couple of spots where I wrote some thorny stuff, wide intervals for the voice — hopefully they won't kill me for that. But what that has allowed me to see is that, when I'm playing and improvising, my drama of the trumpet can hang around a range for a certain period of time. It doesn't have to go all over the range. 

The other thing is that I've gone deeper in understanding the drama. Film was the thing that started that for me. Working in film made me understand that, when I play with my band, I don't want have my show sound like a collection of tunes, where we play a tune and then stop. That's fine for some folks. I like the drama of starting a musical experience and taking the audience through a good chunk of it, and then moving on. That's what film did, and opera has taken me further in that realm, because it's music from beginning to end. I know this is going to sound strange, but, in a weird way, opera has made me really concentrate more on every note that is played. When you play things fast and you're improvising, you're thinking of a shape and the notes in between that shape can be throwaways sometimes. But when you are writing that shape for an opera singer, you can't throwaway  the notes in the middle. You have to let them know exactly what that is. That's re-informed what I do in jazz.

JR: Knowing a lot of Terence's music — not just from this, but from recordings, hearing him play and from film — this opera sounds like him. This has his voice. It doesn't sound like Gershwin or Cole Porter. It has very angular rhythms, very dark harmonies sometimes, that are really fantastic and are really hard to sing. Sometimes it is really hard for the singers to hear where they are in this harmonic world. But once they get it, and it comes off the page, it's sensational. 

TB: The thing that I've learned about opera is that, we're doing exactly what the great composers have done in the past. You take the human condition and you expound on that. What would Verdi or any of those guys write about if they were living today? 

That was the cool thing about the folks in Saint Louis. These guys are very accomplished, but they're open. They're the total antithesis of what I thought would exist in the opera world. You'd think that it is very staunch, that there's a conservative approach to art. That is totally not what these guys are. If you hang out with Jim and just talk to him, you realize that they're into all kinds of things. He reminded me of Herbie Hancock in a way, because if you hang around with Herbie and Wayne [Shorter] they always say, "Why not?" Jim says the same thing. "Why not? Let's try it and see what happens." Can you ask for a better scenario? That's something I tell my students. If you get in a situation like that and somebody says, "Why not?" that's cool. The pressure comes when they say, "Okay, but you gotta' make it work." [laughs] If you come up with some crazy idea, you gotta figure out a way to make it work. It was the exact same feeling when Spike Lee asked me to score a film and I had never done one before. You get excited when somebody says, "We want you to write an opera." You say, "Okay, man, that's great!" Then you walk around for a couple of days telling people about it. Then you have the first meeting and they ask you, "So when are you going to start?" Then the reality of it hits you. Man, how the hell did I get into this? Next thing I know, I'm sitting at the piano with a blank piece of music paper. You want to write an opera? Write an opera about me writing an opera. There's drama in that for sure. spacer 

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