Terence Blanchard’s ‘Champion’ peels back the layers of real-life Emile Griffith

Actor Justin Austin (left) portrays he real-life boxer Emile Griffith (right) in Terrence Blanchard’s “Champion.” The opera is having its Chicago debut at Lyric Opera.

Sun-Times combo Illustration; Lyric Opera of Chicago (left); AP file (right)

Have you ever gone to the fights when an opera broke out?

That bucket list experience can be yours beginning Jan. 27 when Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Champion,” based on the story of 1960s world welterweight kingpin Emile Griffith and his fatal beatdown of Benny “Kid” Paret on March 24, 1962, broadcast live on ABC’s must-see “Fight of the Week.” Paret slipped into a coma after the 12th-round knockout and lingered for 10 days before succumbing to a massive brain hemorrhage. 

Griffith, a closeted gay man from the U.S. Virgin Islands, had been taunted by the Cuban immigrant Paret since the second fight in their trilogy with repeated use of a highly charged Spanish gay slur. Many assumed Griffith had sought retribution by throwing a volley of nearly two dozen unanswered blows at his defenseless rival before the referee intervened in the fateful bout.

Champion

‘CHAMPION’

When: Jan. 27-Feb. 11

Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $49+

Info: lyricopera.org

But Terence Blanchard dismisses that narrative. The seven-time Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter, whose soundtracks have graced several dozen projects — including about 20 for filmmaker Spike Lee — made his initial foray into opera with “Champion” for its St. Louis debut in 2013. Asked initially in 2011 to compose a Katrina-themed opera, the New Orleans native declined because he was still mourning the personal and collective loss from the hurricane. He offered “Champion” as an alternative.

“One of my real good friends was Michael Bentt, who was heavyweight champion,” Blanchard said. “He told me about Emile’s story, how he was a really sweet dude. Michael was kind of my link to Emile, and he even worked with the dancers on the production at the Met (in April 2023).”

The ring fatality resulted in congressional hearings about possibly banning the sport, the disappearance of boxing from prime-time television for a decade and eventual rule changes designed to make the sport safer. It also had a profound effect on Griffith, who is sung by Reginald Smith Jr. as an older man and by fellow baritone Justin Austin as the young prizefighter.

A pivotal point in the opera comes during an introspective moment for Emile, who struggled with pugilistic dementia in his later years. Librettist Michael Cristofer borrows a quote from Griffith: “I killed a man, and the world forgave me. I loved a man, and the world wanted to kill me.”

Terence Blanchard, photographed at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2022. HIs latest opera, “Champion” is being staged at Lyric.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“When I was trying to write an opera, I thought that line would resonate with a lot of people,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard tried to dispel the notion that boxing is a barbaric sport. An onstage ring is used not only for highly choreographed fight scenes, but also to acknowledge fighters’ rigorous training regimen.

“When it comes to boxing, I really hate when people say, ‘Kick his ass,’ ” Blanchard said “If all they see is a brawl, that’s a notion that really hurts. I said to Michael, ‘Let’s make sure that there are some scenes that show him working out and his dedication to the sport.’ ”

The composer rejects the notion that Griffith had malice in mind during the fatal Paret fight.

“The opera is about forgiving yourself,” Blanchard said. “He did what he was supposed to do. There’s no way Benny Paret should have even been in that fight. Gene Fullmer destroyed him just (three months) earlier.

“I heard stories that they used to play basketball together. Even if they weren’t friends, there was no hatred between them. Who goes into a fight saying they want to kill somebody? Nobody.”

Challenger Emile Griffith (right) sends welterweight champion Benny “Kid” Paret of Cuba into the ropes with a left to his face just before the referee stopped the fight in 12th round at Madison Square Garden in New York City, March 24, 1962. Referee Ruby Goldstein (far right) stopped the fight after two minutes and nine seconds. Paret was knocked unconscious by Griffith, who regained the title. Paret would die from his injuries on April 3, 1962. | AP Photo

AP File

Blanchard said writing “Champion” was no easy task, explaining, “I was extremely intimidated. I literally thought, ‘You have the wrong guy, bro.’ It was supposed to take me two years but it took me three because I was scared to death, but my St. Louis guys stepped me through the process.”

After “Champion,” Blanchard composed a second opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which was staged by the Lyric in 2022. 

“The two are very different, but musically they both come from my voice,” he said. “The sensibility of having a jazz trio inside the orchestra is similar. But this opera is a little more traumatic. I think the boxing scenes are seen as tragic.”

While journalist Charles M. Blow, whose memoir was the basis for “Fire,” provided positive feedback to Blanchard after its Metropolitan Opera of New York premiere, the composer wonders how the late Griffith might have reacted to “Champion.”

“He never really came out and said he was gay,” Blanchard pointed out. “Hopefully he would say we got it right to a large degree. He was a dancer who wanted to play baseball and make hats. To show the humanity in him was important to the story.”

There are also moments of ribald humor, such as when young Emile frequents a drag bar and attends a colorful parade in his boyhood hometown, that provide respites from the looming tragedy. But finally, it’s all about Griffith coming to grips with one haunting night in his life.

“When Benny Paret Jr. said to Emile on behalf of the family, ‘We don’t harbor any ill will toward you,’ that was redemption for Emile,” Blanchard said. “He found peace for sure.”

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