Terence Blanchard’s “Champion”: Defining an “Opera in Jazz” - Detroit Opera

Terence Blanchard’s “Champion”: Defining an “Opera in Jazz”

Composer Terence Blanchard calls Champion an “opera in jazz.”  That’s an evocative image and a telling description.

For operagoers who might be encountering Blanchard for the first time — or for jazz afficionados who might be making their first foray into opera — the description opens a window into what is so special about this celebrated composer and his remarkable first opera. “Opera in jazz” illuminates the composer’s sound world in Champion and the African American cultural milieu that the piece captures with such vivid authenticity. The phrase also offers important clues about Blanchard’s singular career path and unique perch in American music.

A multi-Grammy Award winner, Blanchard is at once a major trumpeter and composer in contemporary jazz, a film composer with dozens of scores and an Oscar nomination to his credit for Spike Lee’s Black BlacKkKlansman and an opera composer of rising stature. Champion, based on the true story of former welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, met with critical and popular acclaim at its 2013 debut at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and has been produced in Washington, San Francisco and Montreal. Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019), inspired by the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, also debuted in St. Louis and has been slated for an upcoming season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It will be the first opera by a black composer to be presented at that the Met.

Blanchard, who was born in 1962 in New Orleans, first burst onto the national jazz scene as a precocious 19-year-old in 1982. He succeeded fellow Crescent City native Wynton Marsalis with drum legend Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Blanchard’s career as a film composer started with Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever in 1991, the first of 17 scores for Lee and nearly 50 film and television scores overall.

Syncopated rhythms, the scent of the blues, and tinge of improvisation percolate through Champion. Yet it is not a “jazz opera” in the sense that the musical language is drawn exclusively from jazz. Instead, Blanchard folds vernacular passages built from swing and Latin rhythms into an orchestral tapestry rich with swelling string textures and soaring arias that speak with brooding lyricism.

Blanchard offers a fresh and multilingual take on operatic conventions. He marries a chamber orchestra with a jazz quartet (piano, guitar, bass, drums) in organic fashion. He has the flexibility to conjure whatever melodic idea, color, rhythm or texture he needs at any given moment, whether it from the world of “jazz,” “classical,” “film score” or anywhere on the spectrum between genres.

Still, much of the written music carries the spontaneous gestures and inflections of improvisation, and the singers are occasionally given the freedom to ornament their vocal lines with adlib passages. Blanchard said he hit on the phrase “opera in jazz” as a kind of truth in advertising.

“I didn’t want people to show up to the performance thinking that there was going to be a jazz band swinging at every moment from beginning to the end of the piece,” he said. “I tried to use that language as a tool, just like any other tool the composer would have his at his disposal.”

Emile Griffith’s life fired Blanchard’s musical imagination. It’s a dramatic and tragic story. Griffith was gay (or perhaps bisexual) and closeted in the ultramacho world of prize fighting. He also killed a man in the ring. In a televised welterweight title fight against Benny “Kid” Paret in1962, Griffith unleashed a barrage of punches — 17 blows in no more than seven seconds — that knocked Paret into a coma; he died 10 days later.

The back story is that at the weigh-in before the fight, the Cuban-born Paret taunted Griffith, challenging his manhood by calling him a “maricón,” a Spanish slur aimed at homosexuals. Griffith, who struggled with his sexual identity throughout his life, was also haunted by Paret’s death for the rest of his days.

“I kill a man and most people forgive me,” Griffith once said. “However, I love a man, and many say this is unforgiveable and this makes me an evil person.”

This was at the core of Blanchard’s attraction to the story: “What made me think about making an opera out of his story had nothing to do with boxing. It was all about his life, his struggles, his trying to find redemption.”

The libretto by Michael Cristofe—a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright for The Shadow Box (1977) — tells the story in flashback as the elderly Griffith copes with boxing-related dementia and searches for forgiveness. We follow Griffith from his native St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to New York, where he launches his boxing career and discovers the allure of a gay bar. A period of success as Champion is followed by a long downward spiral and an existential search for forgiveness.

Blanchard is especially happy that Champion has landed at the Detroit Opera House, because Detroit has become something of a second hometown. Since 2012, he has held the title of Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“Detroit reminds me so much of New Orleans,” he said. “It’s the same thing where you have working class people who have passion for the arts. ... I’m really excited about the opera going to Detroit because this is just another side of my musical career in which I can give back to a community that's given so much to me.”

~ Mark Stryker



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