Review: Champion, an Opera About the Bisexual Boxer Who Killed a Man in the Ring

Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s opera tells the true story of Emile Griffith.

Ryan Speedo Green plays Young Emile Griffith and Eric Greene plays Benny Paret in Terence Blanchard’s Champion, directed by James Robinson, at the Metropolitan Opera.
(© Ken Howard / Met Opera)

What do you do? It’s a perfectly acceptable icebreaker in the United States, where we assume occupation reveals something about character. Do you sing? Do you make hats? Or do you punch people until they are nearly (or actually) dead?

The protagonist of Terence Blanchard’s Champion does all three, but only one of those jobs pays — you can guess which one. This thrillingly dramatic, unmistakably American opera is now making its New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera, almost a decade after its world premiere with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and a little under two years following the triumph of Blanchard’s Met debut, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Champion proves that Blanchard is not just a one-hit wonder. In fact, he is the most exciting American composer working in opera today.

The story is based on the life of world champion boxer Emile Griffith (played in his prime by Ryan Speedo Green, but always filtered through the memories of an older Emile, played by Eric Owens). Like Alexander Hamilton before him, Griffith grew up on the Caribbean periphery before moving to New York City, which by the 1950s was the financial and cultural center of the world. He reunites with his elusive mother (Latonia Moore), who introduces him to hatmaker Howie Albert (Paul Groves sensitively playing a man going through a midlife crisis). Instead of giving him a job in his hat factory, Albert convinces Emile to become a boxer. A fateful bout with Cuban fighter Benny Paret (an appropriately cocky Eric Greene), who repeatedly calls Emile a maricón during the weigh-in, turns Emile into the most famous boxer in the world — and a killer.

Ryan Speedo Green (center) stars as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s Champion at the Metropolitan Opera.
(© Ken Howard / Met Opera)

While much of Champion deals with Emile’s obligations (to his mother, to his manager, to his sport), a more revealing part addresses his desires, which he satisfies in furtive queer bars. Did Paret’s taunt so incense Griffith because it exposed a part of him that he would have rather kept hidden?

Blanchard’s soul-stirring score captures both the excitement of live sports and Emile’s looming dread. Much has been said about the composer’s use of jazz on the operatic stage (Blanchard is a jazz trumpeter), but I was most reminded of Bernard Herrmann in Blanchard’s conspiratorial strings, assertive brass, and doomsaying percussion. It runs through our veins and turns our blood cold under the steady baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin (clad in a formal track suit for the premiere). And it reveals Blanchard to be a musical magpie who has borrowed elements of cinematic scoring and jazz to create an evocative and remarkably dramatic opera.

Michael Cristofer’s powerful libretto adds savory language to an already rich score. I never thought I would hear phrases like “built like a brick shithouse” and “fuck me sideways” sung from the stage of the Met, but Cristofer returns the opera to the hustlers and streetwalkers who have always made for its best subjects. He also unpacks Emile’s story with an economy and dynamism than is rare in opera, a form that tends to linger on the most pleasing melodies and motifs, even if they’re not moving the story forward.

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
(© Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Under the direction of James Robinson, the cast beautifully inhabits this macho, crude, mid-20th-century world, complete with athletic, sexy choreography by Camille A. Brown and outrageous costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, who expertly navigates the borderland between butch and femme. Donald Holder’s lighting precisely depicts the radiance of the ring and the darkness of the bar. Greg Emetaz’s projections facilitate the passage of time, as a seemingly unbeatable juggernaut eventually stalls. Allen Moyer’s set takes us from the island of St. Thomas to the island of Manhattan, all materializing and dissolving in the memory of one old man sitting in a tiny apartment in public housing.

That would be the older Emile, whom Owens embodies with a persistent sadness that no amount of senility can shake. Despite the tender care of his adopted son, Luis (Chauncey Packer), he is haunted by the ghosts of his past: His mother, his childhood self (Ethan Joseph delivering a truly astounding vocal performance), and the man he killed in front of thousands of cheering spectators. Mostly, he is haunted by himself, the strong young man who earned a fortune with his powerful body, only to lose most of it as his body and mind deteriorated. Boxing is only the most extreme example of what happens to all of us when we sell our labor to survive.

Green makes a striking figure to lament. With a resonant bass-baritone that never seems to tire, he performs the vocal equivalent of a 15-round match and still seems to have more in him by the end of the night. Most impressively, he conveys the story of a man with deep talents and desires who stumbles into his life before he can really discover who he is. In that way, Emile represents the majority of Americans, who spend their waking hours doing the thing that pays the bills, but not necessarily the thing they love. That seemingly innocent question — What do you do? — takes on a much darker dimension when we stop to think, why?

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Closed: May 13, 2023