Lyric Opera of Chicago presented an unforgettable evening of music, drama, and emotion with the opening of “Champion” on Saturday, January 27. Under the baton of Lyric Music Director Enrique Mazzola, this contemporary work by Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard delves into the gripping story of legendary boxer Emile Griffith, exploring themes of race, sexuality, and self-discovery.
This may seriously be the most depressing opera I have ever had the opportunity to witness. The story is unrelentingly sad from beginning to end, covering Griffith’s feelings of self-loathing and regret for his sexuality and a tragedy that occurs in the ring. But because it’s about traumatic brain injury, the fact that Griffith even loses himself except for those feelings of shame, self-hatred, and horror make it unrelentingly sad.
And, like every other modern opera I’ve ever witnessed, there’s not an aria or even musical motif in it for anyone to hang onto or leave the opera house thinking about. It’s like Blanchard took all the notes there are, tossed them in a bag, and randomly pulled them out one at a time over and over in no particular order. They’re calling it “an opera in Jazz” but unlike even the most hateful freeform jazz that’s ever been, there are literally no structures to hang your hat on. You can hear some jazz chords in the orchestra from time to time, but the singers are singing something a lot like a baby throwing random quarter notes at a music staff and then the singers perform that exceptionally well.
Mazzola, in his first venture into contemporary works at Lyric, masterfully leads the esteemed Lyric Opera Orchestra, showcasing his versatility as a conductor. Everyone brought their A game.
The libretto by Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright Michael Cristofer navigates through various time periods, bringing Emile Griffith’s multifaceted life to the forefront. The story, inspired by true events, unfolds with poignant moments that delve into the complexities of Griffith’s abuse-filled childhood, boxing career, his struggles with sexuality, and the pursuit of the American dream as an immigrant.
The central character of Emile Griffith is portrayed with remarkable depth by three exceptional singers – Reginald Smith, Jr. as Older Emile, Justin Austin as Younger Emile, and Naya James as Little Emile. Their performances capture the essence of Griffith’s journey, and the moments when the various Emiles are singing together are some of the most powerful in the show.
Other standout performers include Whitney Morrison as Emelda Griffith, Emile’s extremely flawed Mommie who has several big moments during the opera and Paul Groves as Howie Albert, Emile’s manager, who sings really the most pivotal aria in the whole piece about what really happened in the fight with Benny Paret (played by the splendid Sankara Harouna).
The Lyric’s chorus has a field day doing background here, and the extremely talented dancers performing choreographer Camille A. Brown’s energetic and evocative dance numbers add incredible energy to all their scenes. The set piece of the Emile vs. Benny fight at the end of Act I is an incredibly powerful moment of theatre.
Director James Robinson, delivers a visually stunning production that really brings you into Emile’s story. The grand, multi-tiered staging, cleverly moves you from Emile’s sad late-in-life bedroom, to his favorite gay bar hangout, to the excitement of the ring with ease.
“Champion” is a testament to Lyric Opera’s commitment to fostering modern work. The accessible storyline set in the world of sports serves as a powerful vehicle to address broader societal themes, challenging audiences to contemplate the essence of masculinity.
Overall, “Champion” at Lyric Opera of Chicago is a knockout production that seamlessly weaves together storytelling, and visual artistry. The collaboration of talent involved in bringing this opera to life is evident. I just wish it had music as good as everything else.
For tickets and information, visit the Lyric Opera Website.
All photos by Michael Brosilow for the Chicago Lyric Opera.