Go see the new opera“Champion” – playing at the Lyric in Chicago 27 January – 11 February

Music fans:  From January 27 to February 11 of this year, you have the opportunity to experience the decade-old opera “Champion” by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, live, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Go if you can. This is the most wonderful opera written this century.

“Champion” coheres musically and dramatically, using musical styles from several genres while always feeling original and fresh. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is using the production created for last year’s run at the Metropolitan Opera in NY. If you want to see an opera that will move you and excite you from the moment the curtain goes up, this opera is for you. As a bonus: this opera features music by and for someone other than dead or not-quite-yet-dead white men. Terrance Blanchard is most famous as a jazz trumpeter and jazz composer, but he shows his chops here as a writer capable of multiple styles and able to grip the minds and hearts of an audience for 2 ½ hours.

This opera is based on the real life of Emile Griffith, a black prizefighter born in the Caribbean and abandoned by his mother. He made his way to New York City intending to be a hat designing and instead became a prizefighter. There are two major dramatic arcs in this story: one about his bisexuality, and one about his life from a guilt-ridden child to a boxer to a guilt-ridden boxer to an old man without his mental faculties living in a home. Themes of guilt, exploitation, and the search for peace by people who have too little peace run through this opera. The boxer’s plight is summed up in this quote: “I killed a man and the world forgave me, yet I loved a man and the world wants to kill me.”

Emile Griffith was a fighter who like many black men of that time was sent into the ring for the profit of his handlers so often and over so many years that he suffered first mental damage and in the end dementia as a result. He also suffered guilt as a result of hitting an opponent in the ring so many times so hard and so fast that the opponent went into a coma and then died after the fight was over.

Griffith is portrayed by three different singers: one portraying him as a child, one as a boxer at the peak of his powers, and one as an old man who struggles to do something as simple as put on his shows. (“Where does my shoe go? It goes where it goes” is one line repeated several times by the aged Griffith). Some of the most poignant moments in the opera are duets or trios between the different singers portraying the boxer. 

Perhaps the most beautiful aria in the entire opera goes to the role of Sadie, Griffith’s wife. She has a lovely and heartbreaking duet with a double bass paying pizzicato. (For opera fans: when you hear this piece, Lucia’s duet with a flute / glass harmonica came to my mind instantly). This is in many ways a very heavy opera that focuses on guilt and forgiveness seen through the lens of black men made to perform in the boxing ring as if they were modern-day gladiators. There is some comic relief, most distinctly in the character of Kathy Hagen. The libretto by Michael Cristofer is wonderful throughout, “Well fuck me sideways,” the opening line of Hagan’s main aria, as one of the many memorable lines in this opera. Ironically perhaps, Hagen’s Hole (The gay bar of which Hagan is the proprietress, at least in this larger context) is one of few safe spaces that Griffith knows his whole life.

My wife and I attended a performance of “Champion” at the Met in NY last year with friends.  We are going again to experience it at the Lyric Opera and taking two other friends along with us. If there is to be a future for opera, that future must include and indeed be founded on operas like “Champion.” Operas that feature great music, well-crafted and sympathetic characters, and current themes that resonate with audiences beyond those of white European stock. One of the things that really struck us last year at the Met was the audience. In the row where we sat there were four Caucasians. Me. my wife, our two companions. Every other person around us was Black. That wasrefreshing and wonderful.

The production in Chicago will be the same as the Met, with a different conductor and different singers in all of the principal roles. This is an opera that should be well led by Lyric conductor Enrique Mazzola and it certainly appears that the Lyric Opera has assembled a first rate cast.

My wife Marion and I loved the opera, were moved by the opera, and found it challenging. Basically all we did the day after we attended this opera was process what we had heard and seen.

In summary: no matter what your musical tastes, see this opera live if you can. Tickets start as low as $49, and you can take a bus from Bloomington or Indianapolis to Chicago for under $100 with Flixbus.

The assessment that “Champion” is the most wonderful opera written this century is of course my opinion. But it is clearly the champion among all operas I have heard that were written this century – and I have heard many. Only “Fire shut up in my Bones” (Blanchard’s second opera) and “The Hours” (by Kevin Puts) stand as competitors for the title of most wonderful opera of the century.

For more information:

Lyric opera pages for Champion: https://www.lyricopera.org/shows/upcoming/2023-24/champion/

Wikipedia page about the opera: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champion_(opera)

Wikipedia page about the boxer Emile Griffith: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emile_Griffith

Flixbus: https://www.flixbus.com/