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WICN Review: Boston Lyric Opera

Written by on May 25, 2022

Champion: An Opera in Jazz

Performed Sunday, May 22 at The Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater

Music by Terence Blanchard

Libretto by Michael Cristofer

Markel Reed as young Emile Griffith

Now in its 45th season, Boston Lyric Opera is the largest and longest-lived opera company in New England. Standing away from popular themes, BLO’s programming has remained faithful to the tradition of trailblazing new ground and offering new ways to enhance the opera-going experience.

Always pursuing productions on the edge of popular themes, Boston Lyric Opera has covered topics including sexual ambiguity, gender bias, racial prejudice, and future dystopian society in its contemporary operatic plots. Champion: An Opera in Jazz is no exception, incorporating the subject of a renowned boxer (1960s welterweight champion Emile Griffith) whose life is torn apart by the killing of an opponent in the ring. Griffith’s later recognition of his own bisexuality, in an unaccepting society, leads to a destructive downward spiral as he searches for forgiveness.

An equally compelling musical score written by multi-Grammy Award-winner Terence Blanchard, renowned jazz trumpeter, composer (including movie scores), and bandleader of E- Collective, creates an orchestral arrangement that wraps around the intense storyline.

Having read the following quote by Griffith, “I killed a man, and the world forgives me; I love a man and the world wants to kill me,” Blanchard was drawn to the profound message and started writing the musical score.

His approach to the composition was to enter the period of time in the 1960s/’70s with its racial conflicts, segregation, and fusing the desperate circumstances of this individual with current societal norms, “I’m trying to do what Puccini did – use the colors and the culture and the folklore of the day to tell a story. If Puccini wrote a scene, he could write it based on one harmonic color, even though he would use a lot of different harmonies in it. What I’m doing is taking how jazz harmony moves and doing the same thing.”

Blanchard’s musical adaptation offers a pallet of jazz genres, interpreting the rise and fall of the antihero boxer. With handclapping, syncopated rhythms, a hint of blues and Bessie Smith, soft jazz orchestral ballads, and a West Side Story-like dance number, the musical score seamlessly fuses the opera and jazz styles. The cast, with powerful portrayals of Griffith by baritones Brian Major and Markel Reed (as a younger Emile Griffith), and mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn as his mother, Emelda Griffith, delivers not only superb voicing but believable period characters, which includes streetwise profanity and direct language.

Orchestral jazz in the hands of contemporary masters like Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, and Terence Blanchard, as featured in this BLO production, continues to offer the composer a wide pallet of experimental arrangements.  In Champion: An Opera in Jazz, the audience is the beneficiary of this complex and emotional exploration.

Chabrelle D. Williams as Sadie Griffith; Markel Williams as younger Emile Griffith.

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