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'Champion' is not your grandmother's Metropolitan Opera

Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's <em>Champion.</em>
Zenith Richards
Met Opera
Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's Champion.

In a hangar-like wood-paneled room at the Metropolitan Opera House, more than 60 artists-- actors, dancers, musicians, directors and stagehands —are arriving for a rehearsal for Terence Blanchard's Champion. Last season, Blanchard made history when his Fire Shut Up in My Bones was the first opera by a Black composer staged by the Metropolitan Opera.

"Walking around this building, it's still like a dream," says Blanchard. "And then, this time it seems like things have ratcheted up to another level. Because the singers are amazing, and the production, as you see, is just awesome. And that's just half of the people."

Along with its huge cast, the production includes a full-sized boxing ring on the Met stage. Champion tells the story of Emile Griffith, a closeted gay boxer --in an era when gay people were outcasts --who rises from obscurity to become world champion and, in one of the great tragedies in sports history, kills his homophobic archrival in the ring.

Blanchard says his best friend, former Heavyweight Champion Michael Bentt, told him Griffith's story.

"And I think what got me about the story was the fact that when I won my first Grammy, you know, I celebrated with my wife by turning and getting a hug. Giving her a hug and giving her a kiss, brought her up on stage. And to think that this guy became Welterweight Champion and couldn't celebrate that with somebody openly –somebody that he loved—seemed awkward and silly to me."

The lead role of Emile Griffith is played by Bass-Baritone Ryan Speedo Green.

"I came from a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, Virginia. And I'm singing at the grandest opera house arguably in the world. Anything is possible. And now I told myself that I want to break opera goers preconceptions of what Opera can be."

At lunch in the Met cafe between two three-hour rehearsals, the 37-year-old singer said Champion will defy operagoers' expectations, "Because this is the most action-packed opera I've ever seen onstage."

At the end of Act One, the opera reenacts a pivotal moment in Emile Griffith's career. At the weigh-in for a 1962 championship bout at Madison Square Garden, Griffith's Cuban opponent, Benny Paret, taunted him with an anti-gay slur. Hours later in the ring, an enraged Griffith caught Paret on the ropes and unleashed a torrent of blows. Paret slumped to the canvas in a coma that he never came out of.

Speedo Green trained for the role for more than a year. The 6-foot-four bass baritone says he lost 100 pounds –from 340 down to 240-- so he would look like a professional boxer. And he worked with a trainer and a professional boxer to learn how to move and think like a boxer.

"I'd never thrown a punch in my life. So I had to learn all the defensive moves, all the slipping and weaving, even realizing that boxing is the most physical version of Chess that exists in sports." Green says now he knows what it felt like to box that round. "But now we make it bigger, we make it broader. We make it more theater, 'Raging Bull.''

Stephanie Blythe as Kathy Hagen in a scene from Terence Blanchard's <em>Champion</em>.
Ken Howard / Met Opera
Met Opera
Stephanie Blythe as Kathy Hagen in a scene from Terence Blanchard's Champion.

Along with scenes of boxing, Champion is energized by dynamic dancing. Blanchard's jazz-inflected score — with its shifting rhythms and time signatures-- presented a challenge to choreographer Camille Brown.

"Terence's music is so beautiful and challenging in the best ways because it always keeps you on the edge of your seat," says Brown. "As a choreographer, I have to be right there. He's ten steps ahead. I have to catch up to him. It's really been a treat, and it's definitely been hard work in the best ways."

The story of Champion is told in flashbacks. As an older Emile Griffith --suffering from dementia—looks back at his career, he is filled with regret for the death he caused in the ring. Terence Blanchard says his opera is ultimately about redemption and forgiveness.

"What he said in his autobiography really blew me away. He said, 'I killed a man and the world forgave me, but yet I loved a man and the world wants to kill me.' And to me, everything I've written for this opera is centered around that moment. Because we have to get past all of this. It's time for us to grow up as a society."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale