One work is about a gay boxer who accidentally killed his opponent. The other, about a convicted murderer on death row. Both are based on true stories. Both have made a strong impression on audiences. And both are, well, operas.
“I know a lot of people hear the word ‘opera’ and think, ‘Oh, that’s not for me,’ ” says jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. “I’m here to tell you that if I’m into this, and I’m a jazz musician from New Orleans, people should give it a chance and check it out.”
Blanchard has about 20 albums and three Grammys to his credit, and he’s known for everything from hard bop to social statements to writing music for many of Spike Lee’s films. He also composed the opera “Champion,” which is being staged by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center next month. Blanchard says that when the Opera Theatre of St. Louis approached him about writing an opera, he “was checking their breath to make sure they weren’t drinking. ‘Who, me? I’ve never done this before.’ ” Now, he’s been bitten by the opera bug; he’s already working on another one.
“Champion” and “Dead Man Walking,” the movie/book-based opera that was a breakout hit for the composer Jake Heggie in 2000 and has been produced about 50 times since, are both the focus of the WNO’s spring season. Both are works by living American composers, which is important to the company’s mission under its artistic director, Francesca Zambello. And, by tackling contemporary topics in ways that are sometimes outside of operatic convention, both operas are an attempt to reach non-opera-goers and to persuade opera fans to try out nonstandard work. Tough sells on both counts.
“Dead Man Walking,” at least, has made its way in the opera world beyond anyone’s expectations — even those of Susan Graham, the brilliant mezzosoprano who sang the key role of Sister Helen Prejean on opening night in 2000 and will return to the opera for the first time since to sing the role of the convict’s mother at WNO, starting Saturday. The success of an opera about a convicted killer, and a nun’s efforts to free him, was all the more unlikely given that Heggie was just a guy working in the press office of the San Francisco Opera when company director Lotfi Mansouri commissioned it. Seventeen years later, Heggie has a string of operas to his name (“Moby-Dick” came to WNO in 2014) and remains beloved by audiences and singers for his use of tonality and melody. “It’s like watching a film,” Graham says.
“Jake is very good at writing a heart-tugging tune,” she adds, speaking about the travails of rehearsing such wrenching material. For her, the emotional journey is particularly intense: Her father died during the 2000 run, and she declined invitations to reprise the role.
“Music, as you know, is about the strongest emotional trigger there is,” Graham says. “I could hear one note of it and I’d be back in that place.” However, after 16 years, she agreed to take on a different role for the WNO production. “Jake is so dear to me, a very good friend, and I didn’t want to let my whole career play out without making friends with this piece again.”
Blanchard’s “Champion” is a much newer work (it premiered in 2013), though it has already been produced more than once. It’s called an “opera in jazz,” but the composer resists categories.
“With this opera, I didn’t try to think of writing classical music or jazz,” he says. “I just took these elements and explored.”
His main concern was telling the story of Emile Griffith, a world champion welterweight and middleweight boxer whose life became dogged by an opponent’s death after a match in 1962. He was also gay.
Blanchard was haunted by the idea of a life lived in the shadows. “The first time I won a Grammy,” he says, “you turn, give your wife a kiss and hug, and go up and accept the award. You share the moment. To think that this guy became middleweight champion and couldn’t share that moment . . . ” His voice trails off.
“Griffith said, ‘I killed a man and the world forgave me, and yet I loved a man and the world wants to kill me,’ ” Blanchard continues. “That statement is still relevant. It’s kind of ridiculous. We have a lot of other things we have to worry about besides who loves who.”
With their topical content, these works were written to impart human rather than political messages.
“It is by nature not a political piece,” Graham says of “Dead Man Walking.” “But in Washington, sort of everything is. What was astounding, 16 years ago, was the fact that it didn’t take a side. It’s a very emotional issue, but everybody’s feelings and opinions are represented.”
Blanchard also sees a new, sad resonance for “Champion” in the current political climate.
“You couldn’t set a better table for this,” he says. “It’s like the stars were aligned for this statement to be made. It is not the atmosphere that I was hoping for, obviously. But given this is where we are . . . in an odd way this opera is becoming more of a protest piece.”