On Stage: Champion

So I’m sitting on the couch trying to think up a way to open this bit when The Wife comes to me and says,

“Get dressed. We’re going to the opera.”

“Again? How long is opera season? It must be longer than baseball season.”

“I wish. No, we’re already halfway through it. You’ll like tonight’s show. It’s about a boxer who kills a man in the ring.”

“Boy, opera sure is more bloody that I was expecting. Last time was a double feature of murder and now this. Who knew pirates would be the least violent of the bunch?”

And so it was that we once again made the trek to the Loretto-Hilton Center, home of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for a performance in the premiere run of “Champion,” a new opera by Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer.

champion-325The show is based on the true story of Emile Griffith, a welterweight boxer who put opponent Benny “The Kid” Paret in a coma, followed by his death, in 1962. The opera opens with an aging Emile (Arthur Woodley), suffering dementia, on the day he is to meet Benny’s son at a park. His life story unfolds around him.

An immigrant from the Virgin Islands, young Emile (Aubrey Allicock) comes to the United States to sing and make hats. He finds his mother Emelda (Denyce Graves) — who abandoned him and his many siblings years ago — and she hooks him up with Howie (Robert Orth), who runs  a hat factory.

Howie looks Emile over and decides he’d make a better fighter than hat maker. Emile begins training and soon he’s winning fights. In addition to his struggles in the ring, Emile spends much of his early years struggling with his homosexuality.

“Champion” is a powerful piece with a lovely, jazz-influenced score and compelling performances by its cast. The standout is Arthur Woodley, whose booming voice demands your attention, but Allicock, Graves and Orth are all given their moment to shine. Another impressive performance is put on by young Jordan Jones, who plays Emile as a child.

“Champion” may be a new opera but it will likely be around for a long time.

“Champion” continues with performances June 25, 27 and 30. http://www.opera-stl.org/ 

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