THE BEST DAMN OPERA I’VE EVER SEEN!!! I’ve been a fan of jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard since I heard his score for the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. I really liked his Met Opera premiere last season’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. But Champion (which was actually his first opera, written about 10 years ago) is world-beating.
Champion focuses on the truly operatic real life story of boxer Emile Griffith. A closeted bisexual, his initial ambition was to be a haberdasher, but when he approaches a professional hat-maker, the man sees this muscular youth and decides that he would be a better fit in the older man’s real passion: managing boxers. The young man from the U. S. Virgin Islands takes to it so well that he is soon world champion. At one point he fights the homophobic Benny Paret – who taunts him with “maricón, maricón” in the weigh-in – and delivers a powerful KO that puts Paret in a coma, from which he never awakens.
Blanchard and librettist Michael Christofer have brilliantly crafted a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic portrait of a life. The opera is moving from its very beginning, where an old Emile, suffering from dementia, sings “This is my shoe. Where does my shoe go?” to a melancholy orchestration. Devastating. But minutes later we are at a “junkanoo” celebration in his native island of St. Thomas where we see a young Emile determined to make hats, as several dancers – and stilt walkers! – dressed in colorful costumes executing Camille A. Brown’s spectacular choreography. The percussion arrangements throughout are some the most propulsive in opera.
Champion is also incredibly sexy!! There’s a locker room sequence where several brawny fellas spend most of the time in nothing but jock straps. A later sequence at a gay bar called Hagen’s Hole features the corps de ballet in the skimpiest of tops. The same sequence features any number of drag queens in fabulous wardrobe.
The cast is uniformly great with Eric Owens (one of my favorite baritones) as older Emile, rising star Ryan Speedo Green doing the heavy lifting as young Emile, making it seem effortless but still very poignantly acted. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe knocks it out of the park as Hagen, the owner of the abovementioned “Hole.” She gets to sing the bawdiest phrase I’ve ever heard in an opera house “Well fuck me sideways!” See for yourself:
Absolutely thrilling, and I’m not just saying that because it is so freaking gay! It’s to my mind Blanchard’s finest work to date, and he is one of the best living American composers we have. My very highest recommendation.
For tickets, click here.
For more more about Jonathan Warman’s directing works, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.