Terence Blanchard's opera on the troubled life of boxer Emile Griffith premieres Terence Blanchard's work based on the troubled life of boxing champion Emile Griffith premieres at the Metropolitan Opera. (This piece originally aired on Weekend Edition on April 8, 2023.)

Terence Blanchard's opera on the troubled life of boxer Emile Griffith premieres

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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 another Blanchard opera is opening at the Met tonight. It’s a retelling of the dramatic story of boxer Emile Griffith. It’s called "Champion." Tom Vitale has this preview.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: "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?

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 a 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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