‘Champion’ debuts; first opera about a gay athleteOnline Only, Section 4A, Top Highlights Friday, June 14th, 2013
On Saturday night, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis will premiere Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s Champion, the story of gay welterweight champion Emile Griffith’s bout with Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1962 that left Paret comatose for ten days before he died. Prompted by an anti-gay slur, Griffith bashed Paret in the head 17 times in seven seconds. Griffith later made amends with Paret’s son Benny Jr. Benny Jr. and Emile’s adopted son Luis Rodrigo plan on being in attendance for tomorrow’s world debut.
Blanchard, whose own father faced discrimination as a black opera singer in an era of blatant racism, was struck by a quote in Griffith’s biography that was the basis for Champion. “”I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person.”
“I was just compelled by the whole notion of a person who could be that accomplished and not really share the moment of winning the championship with somebody that he loved,” Blanchard said in a telephone interview with AP from his New Orleans home. “I immediately thought of the first time I won a Grammy. My wife was with me and I turned around and kissed her without thinking about it.”
An abbreviated version of the quote is used in the opera’s climactic closing scene where an aging Griffith meets Paret’s son to seek forgiveness.
The jazz opera is told in ten rounds and features a predominantly African American cast, including Denyce Graves as Griffith’s mother, Arthur Woodley as old Emile and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile. An 11-year-old from St. Louis, Jordan Jones, plays Emile as a boy.
And the timing couldn’t be better. Jason Collins, a center for the Washington Wizards, became the first male athlete of any of the four major franchises to come out as gay.
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