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Terence Blanchard's Champion: An Opera in Jazz -- a Unanimous Winner in San Francisco

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Tuesday February 23, 2016

From The Huffington Post

Terence Blanchard’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz — a Unanimous Winner in San Francisco
By: Pamela Feinsilber

It’s just past mid-February, and yet it seems safer than safe to claim that one of the year’s most exciting musical productions just opened at the SFJazz Center. The name alone, Champion: An Opera in Jazz, tells you how innovative it is. The venue, too, indicates that this is not your typical opera. It’s running only through Feb. 28, so you may want to go buy tickets now, then come back and finish reading this.

Traditionally, operas tend to be thin, if entertaining, dramatically, generally centered on betrayed or star-crossed lovers, ending in glorious tragic death. That is certainly not the case with Champion, the gripping story of real-life welterweight champ Emile Griffith, who in 1962 killed opponent Benny Paret in the ring (“seventeen blows in less than seven seconds”) after Paret taunted him about his sexuality. Griffith lived on until just after the Champion world premiere, at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in 2013—tormented until the end by Paret’s death, perplexed that the world could forgive him for killing a man but not for loving one.

Michael Cristopher’s libretto is deep and multilayered. Griffith is portrayed as a child (Moses Abrahamson or Evan Holloway), in his prime (Kenneth Kellogg), and in his pitiful last years (the amazing Arthur Woodley), living with his caretaker/adopted son (Kevin Gino), suffering from “pugilistic dementia,” looking back over a life in which good seemed always quickly overtaken by bad. In addition to “Kid” Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson), we meet Griffith’s neglectful mother (Karen Slack, who is given a moment to sing of her own difficult life); his cigar-chomping trainer (Robert Orth); a woman whose seedy bar introduces Griffith to another side of life (Michelle Rice); the woman he never should have married (Sadie Donastrog Griffith), and many others, including Saint Thomas locals, boxing fans, and members of the press, portrayed by a busy singing and dancing chorus. Unlike most productions of traditional operas, in which the vocals are foremost and the acting can be uneven, every performer here is a fine singer and actor. Woodley is truly heartbreaking.

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