Terence Blanchard's 'Champion' premieres at the Metropolitan Opera Terence Blanchard made history last season when his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones was the first work by a Black composer staged by the Metropolitan Opera. And the Met has asked for more.

'Champion' is not your grandmother's Metropolitan Opera

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Terence Blanchard made history last season when his opera "Fire Shut Up In My Bones" was the first work by a Black composer staged by the Metropolitan Opera. Now, the composer's other opera, a retelling of the dramatic story of boxer Emile Griffith, premieres at the Met on Monday night. It's called "Champion." Tom Vitale attended a recent rehearsal.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In a hangar-like wood-paneled room at the Metropolitan Opera House, more than 60 artists - actors, dancers, musicians, directors and stagehands - are arriving for a rehearsal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, everybody. So this morning, I want to work through Act 1.

VITALE: "Champion" was jazz composer Terence Blanchard's first opera. It premiered 10 years ago in St. Louis, followed by productions in San Francisco, Washington and Boston. But at the Met, says Blanchard, the staging has ratcheted up to another level.

TERENCE BLANCHARD: I can't even count the number of people we have in the chorus this time. We have 20 to 30 dancers. You put all of that together, plus a full orchestra and jazz ensemble, it makes for a huge production.

VITALE: And it's a production that includes a full-size boxing ring on the Met stage. "Champion" tells the story of Emile Griffith, a closeted gay boxer in an era when gay people were outcasts, who rises from obscurity to become world champion, and in one of the great tragedies in sports history, kills his homophobic archrival in the ring. The centerpiece of the opera is an aria called "What Makes A Man A Man," sung by Ryan Speedo Green in the role of Emile Griffith.

RYAN SPEEDO GREEN: (Singing) What makes this man a man? Is it the life he's lived?

BLANCHARD: I wanted it to be free of time, you know? I wanted him to be able to express himself however he feels in the moment and have the orchestra follow him. I'm a big fan of Puccini. Sometimes the voice is supported by the strings, sometimes not. And with this aria, I try to take that approach.

SPEEDO GREEN: (Singing) ...Where you know you have to go, and love, and love.

VITALE: Over lunch at the Met Cafe, between three-hour rehearsal sessions, 37-year-old Speedo Green said his entire career has been about shattering stereotypes.

SPEEDO GREEN: You know, I came from a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, Virginia, and I'm singing at the grandest opera house, arguably, in the world. Anything is possible. And now I want to break operagoers' preconceptions of what opera can be.

VITALE: At the weigh-in for a championship bout at Madison Square Garden in 1962, Emile Griffith's Cuban opponent, Benny Paret, taunted him with an anti-gay slur. Hours later in the ring, an enraged Griffith caught Paret on the ropes and unleashed a torrent of blows that left Paret in a coma he never came out of. The scene is reenacted in the opera.


VITALE: Speedo Green trained for the role for more than a year. The 6-foot-4 bass baritone says he lost a hundred pounds, down to 240, so he would look like a professional boxer. And he worked with former heavyweight champion Michael Bentt to learn how to move and think like a boxer.

SPEEDO GREEN: I've never thrown a punch in my life, so I had to learn all the defensive moves, all the slipping and weaving, and even realizing that boxing is pretty much the most physical version of chess that exists.


VITALE: Along with scenes of boxing, "Champion" is energized by dynamic dancing. Choreographer Camille Brown says Blanchard's shifting rhythms presented a challenge.

CAMILLE BROWN: As a choreographer, I have to be right there. He's 10 steps ahead. I have to catch up to him and be right there. So it's really been a treat, and it's definitely been hard work, in the best ways.

VITALE: "Champion" is told in flashbacks. An older Emile Griffith, suffering from dementia, looks back at his career, filled with regret for the death he caused in the ring. Terence Blanchard says his opera is ultimately about redemption and forgiveness.

BLANCHARD: What he said in his autobiography really blew me away. He said, I killed the man and the world forgave me, but yet I loved a man and the world wants to kill me. And to me, everything that I've written for this opera is centered around that moment because we have to get past all of this. You know, it's time for us to grow up as a society.


VITALE: The Metropolitan Opera has commissioned Terence Blanchard to compose a new opera. He says he hasn't picked the topic yet.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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