Based on the story of professional boxer Emile Griffith, Champion is a joint project of OTSL and Jazz St. Louis. OTSL artistic director James Robinson will direct a cast starring Denyce Graves, Aubrey Allicock, Arthur Woodley, and Robert Orth, and the opera's libretto will be written by Michael Cristofer, a playwright, filmmaker and actor who in 1977 won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play for The Shadow Box. Cristofer's screen credits include work on films such as The Witches of Eastwick, Falling in Love, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and HBO's Gia, and he currently is a cast member of the NBC drama Smash.
Though Champion is Blanchard's first opera, he has plenty of experience with long-form composition, notably from his work scoring numerous films for director Spike Lee. Blanchard in 2007 won the Grammy Award for Large Jazz Ensemble for A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), and most recently wrote the score for Lucasfilm's Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen. His music also is currently represented on Broadway by the score for the revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Blair Underwood.
Blanchard performed in St. Louis most recently last month, playing with percussionist Poncho Sanchez' band at the Touhill Performing Arts Center during the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival. Also, a listing published earlier this year on Pollstar shows Blanchard returning in September to play Jazz at the Bistro .
The subject of Champion, Emile Griffith, was a three-time world welterweight champ and twice a world middleweight champion, fighting from the late 1950s into the 1970s. During a bout in 1962 for the welterweight championship, Griffith knocked out his opponent, Benny The Kid" Paret, who fell into a coma and died ten days later.
During the press conference before the fight, Paret had mocked Griffith repeatedly with a derogatory term for homosexual. Years later, Griffith's sexuality as a gay man was revealed to the public after he was nearly killed by a gang outside a gay bar in New York. The incident with Paret, and the widespread publicity and criticism of boxing which accompanied it, became the basis of the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story.
The commissioning and development of Champion is funded by a leadership gift from the Whitaker Foundation and major support from the National Endowment for the Arts and OPERA America. Support for the production is coming from the Whitaker Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Phoebe Dent Weil. OPERA America and PNC Arts Alive are supporting New Voices for Opera, the audience development programming surrounding the project.
Champion will be performed on June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, and 30, 2013. Tickets are available now as part of a season subscription to OTSL; single tickets will go on sale in February of next year.