“Champion,” a co-commission with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis, will receive world premiere June 15 – 30, 2013
St. Louis, MO, May 16, 2012 – Continuing their individual traditions of commissioning music that showcases the talents of the world’s best contemporary composers, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis have joined forces in the development of a new opera, featuring a powerhouse team of writers and performers. With music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Michael Cristofer, Champion blends the uniquely American tradition of jazz with the dramatic power of opera. Based on the story of prizefighter Emile Griffith, the opera will star Denyce Graves, Aubrey Allicock, Arthur Woodley, Robert Orth, and Meredith Arwady. Directed by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Artistic Director James Robinson, Champion will receive its world premiere June 15 – 30, 2013 as part of Opera Theatre’s 2013 Festival Season.
The Story of Champion
Emile Griffith was a three-time World Welterweight Champion and twice a World Middleweight Champion, fighting from the late 1950s into the 1970s. However, one of his greatest professional triumphs – winning back the Welterweight Championship from Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1962 – was also one of his greatest personal tragedies. The seventeen punches he landed on Paret in seven seconds resulted in not only a knockout, but also a coma from which Paret would never recover. Paret would die ten days later.
Before that life-changing televised fight, in a room full of press and officials, Paret mocked Griffith repeatedly with a derogatory term for homosexual. Years later, Griffith’s sexuality as a gay man was revealed to the public after he was nearly killed by a gang outside a gay bar in New York. “I kill a man,” Griffith was quoted to have said, “and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin.” In an inspiring, moving, and painful journey of self-discovery, Champion presents audiences with a great contemporary tragic hero – a man of strength and courage consumed ultimately by rage, regret, and the terrible consequences of his actions.
The Cast of Champion
Champion marks the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debut for Denyce Graves, who originated the title role in Toni Morrison’s opera Margaret Garner. Graves sings the role of Emelda, Griffiths’ mother. The cast is led by Aubrey Allicock, returning to Opera Theatre to play Young Emile after performances as Mamoud in The Death of Klinghoffer in 2011 and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland in 2012. Arthur Woodley, distinguished for his portrayal of the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess world-wide, plays Old Emile. Robert Orth, who has one of country’s strongest pedigrees for originating roles in new American operas, plays Howie. Further casting will be announced in 2013.
The Creative Team for Champion
Renowned for his work as a composer of hauntingly beautiful jazz pieces for small ensembles, symphonic settings, film, and stage, Terence Blanchard has received five Grammy Awards, including the 2007 Large Ensemble Grammy for A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Most recently for film, he wrote the score to Lucasfilm’s Red Tails, which chronicled the story of the Tuskegee pilots and starred Cuba Gooding, Jr. His music is currently represented on Broadway with the score to Emily Mann’s new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which stars Blair Underwood. Champion is Blanchard’s first opera. “My father loved opera,” Blanchard says, “He was a baritone who studied opera, so it was impossible not to feel an emotional connection to him in writing Champion. I was drawn to tell Emile’s story through music from the moment I first heard of his incredible journey. I knew there was no other way to tell this story but through the unique power of opera.”
For playwright, filmmaker, and actor Michael Cristofer, the Champion libretto is also a first. In 1977, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play for The Shadow Box. Cristofer’s other plays include Breaking Up, Black Angel, The Lady and the Clarinet which starred Stockard Channing, and Amazing Grace starring Marsha Mason, which received the American Theater Critics Award for Best Play in 1997. His work on such films as The Witches of Eastwick, Falling in Love, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and HBO’s Gia has earned him a Golden Globe, a Writer’s Guild Award, two Emmy nominations, and a best director award from the Director’s Guild of America. Currently, he appears on the NBC drama Smash. “Champion is the story of a man struggling to make peace with himself and to find his place in the world… as a fighter and a gay man,” Cristofer says. “It’s the story of courage in the face of sexual oppression, of love in the face of hate, of grace in the face of physical and mental decline. For me, Emile’s story not only asks the question of what it means to be a man. It asks what it means to be a human being.”
Director James Robinson is one of America’s most sought-after opera directors, winning wide acclaim for productions that range from standard opera repertory to world premieres and rarely performed works. Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Robinson has staged productions for major opera companies, including New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Canadian Opera Company, San Francisco Opera, and Seattle Opera.
Commissioning Partner and Underwriting
Co-commissioning partner Jazz St. Louis has been an integral part of the creation and development of this opera. Terence Blanchard has performed with Jazz St. Louis on many occasions, and through that relationship, Jazz St. Louis Executive Director Gene Dobbs Bradford introduced Blanchard to Opera Theatre. “Terence Blanchard is among the best jazz composers and musicians living today. We believe that this new opera will be remembered as a major work in the decades to come, both for American jazz and for American opera, as it bridges the two audiences and art forms in a fresh and exciting way.” says Bradford.
The commissioning and development of Champion was made possible with a leadership gift from the Whitaker Foundation and with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts and OPERA America. Support for the production of Champion is generously provided by the Whitaker Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Phoebe Dent Weil. New Voices for Opera, the audience development programming surrounding the project, is made possible by OPERA America and PNC Arts Alive.
Champion will be presented as part of Opera Theatre’s 2013 Festival Season (May 25 – June 30, 2013), which also includes Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a double bill of Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and Smetana’s The Kiss. Champion will receive six performances, on June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, and 30, 2013. Tickets to Champion are now available as part of a subscription to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Single tickets will go on sale February, 2013.
About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is one of the leading American festival opera companies, known for a spring season of inventive new productions, sung in English, featuring the finest American singers and accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony. As of 2012, Opera Theatre has presented 22 world premieres and 23 American premieres – which is perhaps the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company. Described by The Sunday Times of London as “one of the few American companies worth the transatlantic fare,” and by Opera Today as “the leading summer opera destination in the United States,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis welcomed visitors from 45 states and 12 foreign countries in 2011. Although the size of the theater limits box office income to 26% of the budget, the company has consistently produced work of the highest quality while never accumulating a deficit.
Opera Theatre gratefully acknowledges 2012 season presenting sponsor Wells Fargo Advisors.
Opera Theatre is a sustaining member of the Arts & Education Council of Greater Saint Louis, and receives major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Missouri Arts Council.
About Jazz St. Louis
Jazz St. Louis is on an incredible journey to advance the uniquely American art of jazz in St. Louis through live performance, education, and outreach. Each year, this non-profit organization presents over 270 performances on its internationally-acclaimed Jazz at the Bistro concert series. Artists appearing onstage at the Bistro regularly participate in one of Jazz St. Louis’s several education and outreach offerings. This unique, successful model sets the organization apart as an institution that presents jazz, educates future audiences, and nurtures budding musicians. Over 10,000 students are impacted each year by the organization’s work—all of which is offered free of cost to area schools and students. In this three-pronged approach, Jazz St. Louis maintains a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and artistic quality unmatched in its field.
Jazz St. Louis gratefully acknowledges Wells Fargo Advisors as the presenting sponsor of the 2011-12 and 2012-2013 Jazz at the Bistro Series.
Jazz St. Louis receives significant support from the Arthur and Helen Baer Foundation, the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the Missouri Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, PNC Arts Alive, the Regional Arts Commission, the Trio Foundation of St. Louis, and the Whitaker Foundation.