PHOTO: OTSL/Ken Howard
On Saturday, June 15, The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis performed the world premiere of legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard’s first opera "Champion." Set to a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cristofer, Blanchard's "Champion" is inspired by the true but little-known story of Emile Griffith, the gay boxer who became the Middleweight and Welterweight Champion of the World in the 1960s.
Emile Griffith's greatest professional victory was in a nationally televised March 1962 fight with Cuban boxer Benny "The Kid" Paret. During the pre-fight weigh-in, Paret mocked Griffith and called him a "maricon", the Spanish equivalent of "faggot." Griffith literally beat Paret into a pulp and punched him 17 times in seven seconds. Paret died ten days later.
The Grammy Award-winning Blanchard—a prolific composer and film score composer—describes his work as "opera in jazz." Blanchard told the Associated Press that he was fascinated by Griffith's tragic story:
[Blanchard] was inspired to write the opera by a quote from Griffith in the biography: "I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person." ...
"It speaks volumes of where we are as a society and how we need to really check ourselves, especially those of us who call ourselves compassionate human beings."
Blanchard agreed to undertake the biggest musical project of his career in part to honor his father who could not realize his dream of being an opera singer in an era when companies didn’t hire male black singers. His father performed with amateur opera groups, and Blanchard grew up listening to opera recordings at his New Orleans home.
Blanchard knows his father would have been “overjoyed” to see that his son had written an opera performed by a largely African-American cast, including Denyce Graves as Griffith’s mother, Arthur Woodley as old Emile and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile. An 11-year-old from St. Louis, Jordan Jones, plays Emile as a boy.
Blanchard also discusses his opera with St. Louis Public Radio. Listen HERE.
The infamous Griffith-Paret fight became the basis of the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story.
Thirty years later after the fight, Griffith was beaten and nearly killed after leaving a gay bar near Times Square in New York City. Griffith now suffers from dementia pugilistica and requires full-time medical care. Griffith ultimately came out in a 2008 biography.
In October 2012, Puerto Rican featherweight champion boxer Orlando Cruz came out and become the first openly gay, active fighter in the boxing history.