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“I kill a man and the world forgives me/ I love a man and the world wants to kill me” is one of the more poignant lines in Michael Cristofer’s libretto for Terence Blanchard’s 2013 jazz opera Champion. It isn’t poetic metaphor: it’s taken from a real life quote by the title character, Emile Griffith, a closeted gay boxer in the ‘50s and ‘60s who put his opponent Benny Paret, who had taunted Griffith with homophobic slurs, in a fatal coma in a match.
Superficially, that’s what Champion is about, just as superficially, Moonlight is about a bullied kid who fights back and becomes a trap star. What it is instead is a tragedy about being gay and black in a hypermasculine environment that doesn’t let one be both, and resorting to posturing and violence as a means of survival: Griffith, we’re told, wanted to be a hat maker, but was discovered by a trainer and turned, reluctantly, into a killer. The movie and opera have a lot in common, not only in subject matter but also a dreamy, disjointed, vignette structure. Which, it turns out, works better on screen than on stage.
I wanted to like Champion more than I did. I feel bad that I didn’t. Actually, the opera makes you feel bad for feeling that. It periodically trots out a ringside announcer to taunt the audience for wanting more action: “I didn’t come here for a sad story. When do we get to the fights?” And to further guilt trip you, we’re presented with Griffith as an old man, incapacitated by his reward for a successful career in the ring, brain damage.
Champion has a lot going for it. It overturns a lot of both opera and boxing movie conventions, and draws a far younger and hipper crowd to the Kennedy Center than the Washington National Opera is used to. Blanchard is one of the best jazz composers working today, known to movie audiences as the guy who scores most of Spike Lee’s joints: think of any memorable scene in Malcolm X, The 25th Hour, or Inside Man, that’s Blanchard masterfully setting the mood or cranking the tension. But Champion is Blanchard’s first opera, and he doesn’t normally write for vocal music. So some of the operatic conventions he does make use of, the arias and recitatives and leitmotifs, are ponderous and slow down the drama to a crawl, such as an interminable opening about elder Griffith’s missing shoe. The story skips around erratically, conflicts are introduced and resolved within minutes, and musical numbers dwell on random plot points.
Director James Robinson’s production for the WNO takes a very musical theater approach, by now a well established trend in contemporary opera: spoken dialogue, heavy emphasis on staging and choreography, and relative underemphasis on singing—you know, the thing that makes opera, well, opera. WNO’s cast gets the job done: aside from an occasionally weak Aubrey Allicock as the young Griffith, most manage to rise above conductor George Manahan’s heavy percussion, with a nice, resonant bass from Arthur Woodley (who hails, as did Griffith, from the U.S. Virgin Islands) as the older Griffith, and particularly mezzo Denyce Graves, who gives a stunningly wrenching aria as Griffith’s struggling mom. But a lot of the supporting singing is unmemorable and plagued by timing issues. True to musical formula though, the set pieces are great, from a St. Thomas Carnival celebration to projections of New York landscapes and news clips over the action. The fight scene choreography is excellent. But we’re not supposed to enjoy that.
Champion is a worthy endeavor, even if it feels like, at less than five years old, it’s still in the workshop stage. Contemporary opera should be relevant, and as with Dead Man Walking (playing concurrently) and 2015’s Appomattox, this production marks the WNO’s willingness to take on some of our lingering national sins (the death penalty, racism) in ways that might make subscribers squeamish, which is commendable. The sin in Champion is homophobia, but for the most part, it isn’t the world that wants to kill Griffith. It’s himself, as Paret’s ghost tells him. It’s an opera about guilt and self hatred, a tragedy that’s realer than the Werthers and Carmens of the repertory, which may be why it’s not as easily entertaining.
Champion continues through March 18 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $35-$300.