Champion swings into Lyric Opera of Chicago

Fri. January 26, 2024 12:00 AM
by Jerry Nunn

Terence Blanchard's Champion is the first opera written by the five-time Grammy Award-winning composer and is based on the true story of Emile Griffith. This queer, professional boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands threw a fatal punch at Benny Paret in 1962 after being bullied about his sexuality.

From January 27- February 11, 2024, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Drive, remounts Champion after a successful world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013.

Patric Coy's photo exhibition accompanies this production in the Grand Foyer for attendees to explore inside the Civic Opera House.

Director James Robinson worked with a smaller cast for the original run and rejoined the show in Chicago. He described how the piece has evolved, “It retains the basic premise but with a much more expansive production. The Lyric had a hit with Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones and made this happen. This story will resonate with many people with a real message. It deals with a sexually conflicted person. Terence is straight but feels it's an important story to be told. Emile was in the boxing world where being bisexual was not supported. He has to reconcile this after killing someone. After this happened a lot of the rules were changed. This is a very complex story and not just about boxing. We incorporated opera with choreography to make it entertaining.”

Choreographer Christopher Jackson started as a dancer at the Metropolitan Opera in the original cast of Champion. He gushed backstage, “I am from Chicago and I am very excited to be back at the Lyric to uplift these dancers!”

Jackson went on to say, “I am gay and there are many layers to this show. Emile's identity is not at the forefront of what his real pain is which stems from the trauma surrounding his childhood and mother.”

Chicago performer Whitney Morrison portrays Emile's mother Emelda Griffith and describes her character as “often the loudest one in the room.” Morrison stated, “We don't know a lot about her but we have pieced things together to make a story for the stage. She is self-absorbed and opportunistic. She can be difficult to play, but I use the libretto to clue me in on what is happening.”

Reginald Smith, Jr. gives the big picture of Emile, “He was a real person that you can watch videos of on YouTube. When we first did the opera Emile was still alive and soon after we opened the show he passed away.

Justin Austin plays Young Emile and talks about his character's identity, “Emile Griffith was a queer man and at the time he couldn't be open about it as a public figure, especially as an athlete participating in the hyper-masculine sport of boxing. He was still sure about what he liked but similar to many bisexual men at the time he married a woman. He never escaped who he was in reality. His friend Benny Paret knew his secret and when it came to fighting him in the ring called him derogatory terms and assaulted him sexually in front of the world. Emile felt betrayed and emasculated so that energy came out and Paret ended up dying. Emile felt an immense amount of guilt from that for the rest of his life.”

Reginald followed that up with, “This is not a just Black, queer story but Champion depicts the entirety of this person's life. It is complex and we tell all sides of the story.”

Austin explained, “At the Lyric audiences will see men dancing with men and women dancing with women plus drag queens. There is an array of celebrations of humanity. It is a beautiful thing!

For tickets and more information on Champion visit