2013 saw the completion of a major project by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Under a co-commission by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis, Champion, which Blanchard called “an opera in jazz” was given its world premiere on June 15, 2013 by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Working with a libretto by Michael Cristofer, Blanchard created a full-length opera in two acts and ten scenes to examine the life and times of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith.
Griffith is best known for his impact on the television broadcasting of boxing. In 1962 Friday Night Fights was a regular offering on the ABC network. However, things changed radically after the March 24, 1962 fight between Griffith and Benny Paret. During the weigh-in for that fight, Paret had called Griffith maricón (Spanish for “faggot”); and, by the time they got into the ring, both were highly charged. In the sixth round Paret came close to knocking out Griffith; but Griffith was “saved by the bell,” as they say. This strengthened Griffith’s resolve; and in the twelfth round he landed a knock-out punch on Paret. However, the punch did more than that. Paret fell into an unconscious state from which he never recovered. He died in hospital ten days later; and live television broadcasting of boxing on a weekly basis died with him.
For the record, Friday Night Fights returned to television on June 7, 1998. This time, however, it was broadcast on the cable ESPN channel. Those who follow the media business know that both ESPN and ABC are part of the same Disney-based conglomerate. The Friday Night Fights series concluded on May 22, 2015; but boxing is back on television on a regular basis, if not always on a Friday night.
Cristofer developed a libretto to explore the backstory behind Paret’s insult. Technically speaking Griffith, by his own admission, was bisexual. He was quoted by Sports Illustrated as having said “I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.” However, that article appeared in 2005. Anyone old enough to remember 1962 knows that the attitude towards homosexuality was very different at that time; and, if the general public was intolerant, the sports world was even more so.
Blanchard is now SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director; and this month his opera will receive a new, fully staged production. That production will be the first collaboration that SFJAZZ will have with Opera Parallèle. Bass Arthur Woodley, who sang the role of Griffith at the world premiere, will return for this new production, which will be staged by Opera Parallèle’s Creative Director and Resident Stage Director, Brian Staufenbiel. Blanchard is preparing a new orchestration of his score for this production, which will involve a jazz trio, a chamber orchestra, and a Gospel chorus.
Champion will be given eight performances at 7:30 p.m. on February 19, February 20, February 21, February 23, February 24, February 26, and February 27 and at 4 p.m. on February 28. All performances will take place in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, located at 201 Franklin Street on the northwest corner of Fell Street. Ticket prices are between $185 and $30. Ticketing is being handled by SFJAZZ, which has a single Web page for online purchases for all performances. This page is preset for February 19, but the other dates can be selected from a pull-down menu.