Terence Blanchard’s two-act opera “Champion,” which premiered locally at the Mahalia Jackson Theater on Friday and will be reprised in a Sunday matinee by the New Orleans Opera Association, is a case study in pathos, confused identity, the joys of fame and the price that is often paid during the rise to the top.
Working from a fact-based libretto by Michael Cristofer, Blanchard, a Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpeter who has performed with some of the immortals of jazz and composed dozens of film scores, has taken his varied musical experiences to a new level in this, his first opera.
“Champion” is the story of the former welterweight and middleweight boxing champion Emile Griffith. But this is no “Rocky” or any of its sequels. What should have been Griffith’s greatest moments are, instead, haunted by his memory of having punched an opponent, Benny “Kid” Paret, to death in a 1962 title bout. He also confronts nagging questions about his own manhood, being a gay man in a strongly masculine sport.
As he descends into senility, largely attributable to the many blows he took to his head in 112 professional fights, plus a savage beating he received from a mob outside a New York City gay bar, Griffith seeks forgiveness from Paret’s son, Benny Jr., in the opera’s final scene.
The journey to that point is a series of highs and lows and every other emotional state in between.
The orchestral score — deftly guest-conducted by George Manahan, who led the opera’s world premiere in St. Louis five years ago — is appropriately soaring and dynamic during the triumphant moments in the boxing ring and dark and brooding during the protagonist’s most agonized introspective musings.
Like any well-done movie soundtrack, the music draws the audience into the drama that is occurring in front of them. This is where Blanchard’s film-honed compositional skills reach their highest level.
The opera’s signature aria — “What makes a man a man?” — is delivered to maximum effect in a sonorous bass voice by Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile, whose unanswered questions about his own masculinity underlie much of the opera’s ongoing theme.
However, the central figure is Arthur Woodley as the Older Emile, whose presence throughout the work is nearly constant, even appearing in scenes with his younger self. Another bass with a convincing delivery that comes as much from the heart as from the vocal cords, Woodley is the storyteller, with much of the action told in flashback form.
Soprano Karen Slack, as Emelda, the absentee mother who abandoned Griffith and six other illegitimate children in their native Virgin Islands, beautifully atones for her negligence with a soaring aria about “seven babies in the sun” that brought down the house Friday night.
Other fine work comes from Robert Orth as Griffith’s potty-mouthed manager, Howie Albert; Anthony McGlaun as Paret and Paret Jr.; Brian Arreola as Luis, Griffith’s adopted son; Cherita Monché Covington in the dual roles of Griffith’s cousin Blanche and wife Sadie; Michelle Rice as the sultry gay bar owner, Kathy Hagan; and Tony Bentley as the ring announcer.
The New Orleans Opera Chorus, under the direction of Carol Rausch, performed beautifully, as did the dancers, led by a four-member contingent from the Marigny Opera Ballet.
James Robinson's stage direction was expertly coordinated, as were the lighting design and the visual projections of New York City street scenes and the Virgin Islands.
On the debit side were several occasions when the supertitles were out of sync with the singers. There were even a few awkward gaps when the titles were projected and no vocals were heard.
Also, there is too much spoken dialogue which could just as easily have been converted into recitatives. And the plethora of obscenities in the libretto, though undoubtedly appropriate for the settings, very likely stung the ears of many in the audience.
Overall, however, “Champion” is a triumph for the local opera company, especially in its mission to become more racially and demographically diverse. It is also a triumph for a local composer whose upward trajectory in the art form appears assured.
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 1419 Basin St.
TICKETS: $26-$225. Sunday brunch $15-$25 additional
INFO: (504) 529-3000, neworleansopera.org