How many operas have there been about boxing? a friend asked me at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night. In fact, there have been a few in Washington alone. In 2010, we had “Shadowboxer,” about Joe Louis. In 2013, there was “Approaching Ali.” And now, the Washington National Opera has brought to town Terence Blanchard’s 2013 opera “Champion,” the story of Emile Griffith, best remembered for accidentally killing Benny Paret, his opponent, in a 1962 bout.
Griffith was also gay, or bisexual — Paret taunted him before the fatal fight. “I killed a man and the world forgave me,” he sings, after he is brutally beaten on the street. “I love a man, and the world wants to kill me.” The opening-night audience — one of the most diverse I’ve seen at WNO — broke into applause.
Bringing sexuality and cultural diversity front and center on the opera stage is a worthwhile goal, as that opening-night audience demonstrated. And the resulting piece, while far from perfect, is also far from terrible. Blanchard, an acclaimed jazz musician in a year-long residency at the Kennedy Center, had never tried opera when the Opera Theatre of St. Louis approached him about a commission; Michael Cristofer, his librettist, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor (currently in TV’s “Mr. Robot”). And “Champion” shows two impressive talents working hard to shoehorn themselves into the restricted space of what one might term “opera product” — a story told in music in a way that fills the requirements of a mainstream American opera house.
In practice, this meant a story that was told reasonably effectively with, time and again, the emergence of musical and dramatic moments that briefly revealed the true quality of the creative energies that went into making the work. Blanchard’s score, melodic and somewhat anodynely “operatic” in its vocal writing, though integrating a jazz quartet, was at its best whenever he let more of the jazz come out — in the smooth vocal lines of the elderly Emile, or a striking solo scene in which Emile’s mother’s voice is accompanied only by the single line of a double bass. George Manahan, a veteran of many new American works at the late lamented New York City Opera, conducted with commitment.
As for the dramatic merits: “Champion” is one of many recent operas that tell the story of a real person by starting with an old-age scene and reverting to flashbacks, a la “Citizen Kane.” But “Champion” stands out from the crowd through its poignant and telling portrayal of the elderly Emile, who, as sung by Arthur Woodley, represents an achingly sympathetic picture of an old man struggling with dementia. Woodley’s firm, rich bass and gentle presence, in some of Blanchard’s simplest and most effective music, kept him the emotional heart of the evening, as he needed to be, all the way through.
The flashback concept was also effectively dealt with in James Robinson’s production, which used film projections to create evocative atmospheres or images (crowded New York streets; newspaper clippings) framing colorful ensembles. A bright carnival crowd sees the young Emile off from his native Virgin Islands; drag queens dance at a gay bar presided over by Kathy Hagan, a role belted out with chesty relish by Meredith Arwady.
One of the strongest threads in the fabric of Griffith’s past is his relationship to the mother who abandoned him and six other siblings, and whom he finds after he arrives in New York as a young man (sung by the energetic, but vocally pale Aubrey Allicock). I’d like to report that Denyce Graves stole the show in the part, but her voice in an opera house is too worn and threadbare really to carry the emotional weight, despite the fact that she had some of the most effective music, particularly that poignant solo aria.
Vocally and dramatically impressive was the young soprano Leah Hawkins, a member of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz program, who pulled off two wildly contrasting characters: the vindictive Cousin Blanche, raising and punishing the child Emile (Samuel Grace, with a reedy treble), and Emile’s wife, Sadie. Victor Ryan Robertson showed a smooth tenor voice as Benny Paret and, even more tellingly, as Benny’s son, whom the old Emile asks for forgiveness at the end of the opera. Frederick Ballentine, another Domingo-Cafritz artist, was promising if a little stiff as Luis, Griffith’s adopted son, who cares for him in his old age.
As Howie Albert, the manager who makes Griffith into a fighter and runs his career, Wayne Tigges announced an indisposition before the show and literally lost his voice once it started, so his part was sung from the sidelines by Samuel Schultz while he mimed it from center stage.
“Champion” is a chain of individual numbers, some of them more predictable than others, and it could stand to be cut, particularly in Act II. But it represents something important and worthwhile, not only in including fresh perspectives but also in presenting, in Woodley’s Emile, a character I loved and will remember — which is more than many new operas can boast.
“Champion” runs through March 18.