Champion: An Opera in Jazz, SF

Don't count this punchy, jazzy opera out -- it delivers a blow in ways that most opera-goers would grade a well-placed hit.

By Terence Blanchard
Libretto by Michael Cristofer
Co-presented by Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ
Conducted by Nicole Paiement
Directed by Brian Staufenbiel
SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco
Feb. 19-28, 2016

“Champion” packs a punch. If Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s opera is not a complete knockout, it may be due to a flabby libretto by Michael Cristofer with words that don’t live up to the power of the highly-listenable score. But, as presented by Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ, in San Francisco’s sleek SFJAZZ Center, it is still a powerhouse.

The story of boxer Emile Griffith is the stuff of which operatic tragedy is made. In 1962, Griffith, a charismatic young immigrant from the Caribbean, faced Benny “Kid” Paret in a contest for the welterweight title. Delivering 17 blows in some seven seconds, Griffith started on a path that would lead him to fame, fortune and numerous titles. Kid Paret never came out of the coma. Hounded by the press, in spite of his success, as well as his regret, the champ went into a downward spin and also died — albeit at 75 — of something called dementia pugilistica, a name that speaks for itself.

“Champion” has a one-two punch in the performances of Kenneth Kellogg as the young Emile and Arthur Woodley as his elderly counterpart, seated on his bed in his lonely room on the top level of Dave Dunning’s inventive set, looking for his shoe and then trying to figure out what to do with it. Meanwhile, the space below is bursting with action, whether on Emile’s native St. Thomas with colorful dancers, in the boxing ring or in a gay bar where the young boxer discovers his bisexual tendencies. In between scenes choreographer Joe Orrach performs incredible rhythmic feats with a speedbag or jump-rope and Mark Hernandez introduces scenes in a ring announcer’s patter.

“Aaaand in this corner” is the homosexual subtext which lengthens the opera (some two-and-a-half hours long) without contributing a whole lot to plot progression or emotional power (although there is one lovely moment when the older Emile sings “I kill a man and the world forgives me; I love a man and the world wants to kill me”). There is one horrific scene of gay-bashing when some guys attack the boxer with baseball bats, leaving him for dead, but, to tell the truth, the damage to his brain probably was done long before. Otherwise, Emile’s sexuality doesn’t seem to bother him very much. He marries a pretty wife (sweet-voiced Chabrelle Williams) and struts proudly through the intensely macho arena of prizefighting. I couldn’t help thinking that it was pushed center stage as a bow to contemporary concerns.

But back to the music. Fine support is given by soprano Karen Slack as Emile’s mother who abandoned him in his youth and lived off him in his glory days. Her blues aria, sung a cappella with only Marcus Shelby’s jazz bass line in the background, was a show stopper. Veteran operatic baritone Robert Orth, last seen in these parts in Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” is Emile’s tough-talking, cigar-chomping manager who also has his solo moment in the spotlight. Moses Abrahamson, who alternates with Evan Holloway in the role of Emile as a child, has a sweet voice and Andres Ramirez plays Luis, the elderly boxer’s caretaker.

“Champion” may be jazzy but it follows a number of operatic conventions (the composer grew up listening to opera at home) from solo arias and duets to ensembles and choruses. And here’s to the Opera Parallèle chorus, whether playing cheerful islanders, boxing fans, reporters or patrons of a gay bar. They were terrific. As was the orchestra and jazz trio, ably conducted, as always, by OP artistic director Nicole Paiement. Direction was by the ever-creative Brian Staufenbiel and the colorful and era-appropriate costumes (including a green tuxedo and matching sparkly “pimp shoes” for Griffith in his heyday) were designed by Christine Crook.

Premiered a couple of years ago by Opera Theater of Saint Louis, “Champion” works wonderfully as a chamber piece on a small stage. I wouldn’t look to see it, for example, at the Met. Nevertheless, with some loss of the extra weight and tightening of the belt, I wouldn’t count it out.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”