fb-pixel Skip to main content

Composer Terence Blanchard on what it takes to make ‘Champion’

Emile Griffith, a 1960s boxing champion, was haunted by his past after fatally pummeling a rival in the ring. A new production of the 2013 ‘Opera in Jazz’ about his life will close Boston Lyric Opera’s season.

"Champion" is the first opera written by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.Henry Adebonojo

“I killed a man, and the world forgave me. I loved a man, and the world has still never forgiven me.”

Emile Griffith, who won five boxing championships in the mid-20th century, spoke these poignant words. Griffith was also secretly gay, and his career took a tragic turn when, after being outed at a weigh-in by his friend and opponent, Benny Paret, he proceeded to knock Paret out so viciously that Paret never regained consciousness. He died 10 days later.

Griffith’s life is the subject of “Champion” (2013), the first opera by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard (with a libretto by Michael Cristofer), a new production of which will close Boston Lyric Opera’s season. It opens Friday, an earlier show having been canceled due to COVID-19 disruptions, now as a “concert-style” performance with costumes on the production’s main set.


The production comes as Blanchard’s star in the opera world has skyrocketed. His second opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” became the first opera by a Black composer to be performed at The Metropolitan Opera when it opened the Met’s current season. The company has since announced that it will bring “Champion” to the house next April, and has plans to revive “Fire” and commission a new work.

He spoke to the Globe by phone from Los Angeles about his two operas and breaking barriers at the Met.

Q. Your father was an amateur singer and an opera lover, so you must have heard lots of opera when you were growing up. What made an impression on you?

A. First of all, I think it’s important to note that my dad listened to a lot of classic opera. So I think that hearing those melodies — from “Carmen,” from “Pagliacci,” everything — years later, I started to realize that those melodies had a huge impact on how I write. I’ve always tried to write melodies that were singable, and I think it all comes from listening to opera back then.


Q. How did this opera come about?

A. Opera Theatre of St. Louis was interested in broadening their listener base, and they thought about doing a jazz opera for kids to get kids interested in opera. And the more that they dealt with it, the more they started to think, well, let’s not make it for kids. Let’s put it on the main stage. And they talked to Gene Dobbs Bradford, who was head of Jazz St. Louis at the time. Gene remembered a conversation I had with him about my father loving opera. He told them, you should think about Terence.

Q. Why did you think the story of Emile Griffith was the right subject?

A. My best friend is a [former] heavyweight champion named Michael Bentt. He told me about Griffith, and it just loomed in the back of my mind. When you fight an opponent for the third time, and you wind up killing that opponent, that’s a devastating thing all by itself. But to have that opponent out your sexuality prior to the fight makes it even more so.

Q. The plot of “Champion” obviously has a very deep tragedy to it. But it seems to me that there’s also something redemptive about it as well.

A. Redemption is the key. Because the whole opera is based on [Griffith] having a flashback as an elderly man suffering from dementia. But once he gets to meet Benny Paret, Jr. at the end of the performance, who tells him the family doesn’t harbor any ill will toward [Griffith], he just loses it. To see that this man had been carrying the weight of this event throughout his life, you know, to be redeemed in such a way by a family member I know had to be something that was really special for him.


Q. What was the biggest challenge for you in composing this your first opera?

A. Writing for voice. Because there’s this little thing that happens when you write for opera: The voices are all different. When you’re writing for orchestra, if I’m writing for cello, I know what that’s going to sound like, whether it’s Boston Lyric, whether it’s Chicago, whether it’s the Met . . . When it comes to voice, all of that goes out the window, so you have to learn how to make accommodations for those forces.

Q. You’re an experienced film composer. Was that experience helpful in writing an opera? Or was it not relevant?

A. Both. It’s helpful when it comes to orchestration and creating scenes: If there needed to be tension, or if a scene needed drama, or it needed to be comedic, my background really helped. But again, going back to writing for voices, it wasn’t even close. The thing about writing “Champion,” especially when we did it the first time, is that we all felt like fish out of water. Because the singers had to trust me and what I was writing. And I had to trust them and how they were performing the material. And it allowed all of us to grow.


Q. You call “Champion” an opera in jazz, not a jazz opera. What’s the difference?

A. We didn’t want people to think that they were going to come to a jazz opera and hear a big band, a jazz ensemble play behind these singers throughout the performance. 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.

Q. What was it like to have the Met not only open the season with “Fire” but to be the first Black composer to have an opera performed at the Met in its 100-plus-year history?

A. It was surreal. I mean, it still is. It’s one of the things where you go, wow, that really happened. You think about New York, which has been one of the most liberal places artistically on the planet. And to think that that hasn’t happened at the Met was kind of shocking for me.

But having said that, it was filled with mixed emotions, because I just heard William Grant Still’s [opera] “Highway 1″ in St. Louis, and I thought it was a brilliant opera, really unique and daring for the time, because he was doing a lot of the things that I’m trying to do in terms of bringing our culture, the American culture of jazz, into the world of opera. And to see in the ledger where he was rejected three times by the Met by people who just didn’t know what they were listening to — it was a travesty. So hopefully, we made him proud by doing what we did, but also, hopefully, there’ll come a time where they’ll present William Grant Still at the Met.



Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At: Emerson Majestic Cutler Theatre, May 20 & 22. Tickets: $25-195. www.blo.org

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.