Monday, May 1, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Killing for Love" (on Michael Cristofer and Terence Blanchard's Champion)

killing for love

by Douglas Messerli


Michael Cristofer (libretto), Terence Blanchard (composer), Gary Halvorson (live HD director), James Robinson (on stage production director) Champion (The Metropolitan Opera HD Live production) / 2023


Having read several reviews of Terence Blanchard’s second opera to premiere at The Metropolitan Opera in the last two years—a record matched only by Richard Strauss—I perhaps lowered my expectations for my viewing of this opera. But after seeing the opera I was bit abashed for having attended so fully to the reviews. Although I can’t disagree with a number of the critics in their observations of this opera’s flaws, I nonetheless was overcome by this work’s powerful popular appeal—particularly to the black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ audiences who, with a few exceptions, have for centuries been largely ignored in this major cultural milieu. Now that opera, through its HD productions, has become something which we can identify as being akin to film, perhaps I can rectify that long silence, at least as it applies to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender audiences, by reviewing those few exceptions.

      Champion hits home for black, Hispanic, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and perhaps even transsexual individuals, but also resonates for anyone who has unintentionally been involved in a terrible act that resulted in a lifetime of guilt—which given the actions of our own government during the last 100 years alone, might include all of us who make up “We, the people.”

     There is no doubt that the greatest problems facing Blanchard’s first opera, which premiered in a production by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, is Michael Cristofer’s libretto. Playwright Cristofer, best known for his 1977 play The Shadow Box—not a play about boxing, but about characters suffering from various forms of terminal illness—and his play on Emile Griffith Man in the Ring written after the opera, may be an excellent creator of well-made plays, but he has clearly little talent for the epic and his talents as a poet are questionable.

      All theater and opera creators, given the nature of their larger-than-life subjects, must collapse encyclopedic events simply in order to squeeze them into a three-hour format. The decision to begin the opera in Griffith’s Virgin Islands homeland, forced the composer and librettist to call upon the talents of choreographer Camille A. Brown and costume designer Montana Levi Blanco to show us a world of color, music, and dance in order to symbolize the world into which this remarkable athlete (played by Eric Owens as an old man and by Ryan Speedo Green as his younger self) was born. Not such a terrible idea given the fact that it is perhaps the very last time when Cristofer will show instead of tell us about events; but, nonetheless, coming as early as it does in the opera, it seems somewhat out of kilter, like an opening Broadway musical number instead of a vague memory of an operatic figure suffering from dementia pugilistica and a life-time of guilt.


       Fortunately, when we meet Griffith’s mother when the young man arrives in New York City she has the opportunity to hastily attempt to explain her abandonment of seven children in the moving and wonderful song in which she sings of her “babies in the sun” left behind. And from the very beginning we comprehend that Emelda Griffith (Latonia Moore) is a being of contradictions, a woman who recognizes that she has not been a very good mother, but who wants back into her son’s life simply because she is still his “only mother” and, perhaps she has found another method of financial support through him.

      But it would have been useful to know that the character described even in the boxing world as a former hat-maker actually worked in Howie Albert (Paul Groves) sweathouse shop for some time as a hat-maker before Albert one day noticed his worker, after having removed his shirt on hot New York summer day, as a potential boxer. Surely, it would have explained some of the later ringside references made by the announcer (Lee Wilkoff), impatient to move away from biographical information—the role he actually plays as the connector of opera’s disparate events—in order to get to the main event, the fight itself.


      Some of the reviews suggested that Groves was not in his very best voice on opening night, but in the HD performance I saw he was quite excellent, and as a character helped to enunciate and connect various aspects of Griffith’s life that otherwise seemed hazy, as in his remarkable aria in which he refuses to hear his boxer’s confessions about his gay life—a representation of the purposeful denial of so many individuals in the US of 1962, a period which Michael S. Sherry argues in his Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy, there was a shift from ignorance and dislike of all things gay in the post-war era to outright hatred of public gay figures in the early 1960s when he argues, “there was a near-unified belief that homosexuality was not only a corruption of American values but a real threat to American power.”

      It might have helped us comprehend the relationship between boxer Griffith and Cuban welterweight Benny 'Kid' Paret (Eric Greene), moreover, to have some indication that the two had met up before in previous fights in April 1961 when Griffith knocked him out and again in September of that year when Paret was declared winner by a close split-decision. It certainly would have helped to know of their prior encounters and provide some sense of context to Paret’s homophobic slurs and acts in their weigh-in before their final 1962 fight, when he not only pinched Griffith in the ass, suggesting that he liked to get fucked—which the opera’s libretto seems to further imply with Emile’s second act aria upon his visit to a gay bar—but called him a maricón, meaning an “effeminate homosexual,” an epithet, that as gay critic Ernesto Cuba describes it, “is one of the most insulting words that can be said to call a masculine-presenting person or used to name one in the Spanish language.”*

     Yet, most importantly, since one of the central themes of this opera seems to revolve around Griffith’s being gay or bisexual—the opera even hinting, by surrounding him with gay friends during his first encounter and proposal, that his sudden marriage to Mercedes "Sadie" Donastorg (Brittany Renee) in 1971 probably was in reaction to the public homosexual slurs**—one of the libretto’s greatest flaws is that we never see Griffith in an actual relationship with a gay man. He enters Kathy Hagen’s LGBTQ club Hagen’s Hole (a truly lesbian, gay, and transgender hangout) twice, without seeming to take anyone home with him or even making-out in the back room. In fact, the first bar scene appears more about giving popular Metropolitan mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe something to sing about—no harm in that!—than in exploring the other central aspect, along with his boxing skill and the sorrow it brings him, of Griffith’s complex life.

      If it is important to establish that Griffith was homosexual, it is equally important to know how his love of gay men and sex intersects with the violence that compels him to quite literally kill his boxing opponent and its effects in the later street attack upon him by homophobic thugs which almost takes his own life and certainly helped to contribute to his further dementia. Such violence arises not just through being called a maricón but something far deeper in US life and, in particular, in US sports culture. 

      In a short interview before the opera, composer Terence Blanchard expressed his sadness that even in his greatest moments of success, Griffith could not openly share it with his gay lover. But after seeing the opera, I can only wonder, what gay lover? Did he truly even have a gay relationship? We haven’t even been shown a one-night stand.

      Writing in The Observer Gabrielle Ferrari nicely summarizes my feelings:


“The finest line of the opera comes at the end when the older Emile says: “I kill a man, and the world forgave me, but I love a man, and the world wants to kill me.” From the press surrounding the St. Louis premiere, it seems these were words spoken by Griffith himself in conversation with the opera’s creators. Here, we get what we wanted all along: Griffith recognizing something about queerness, boxing and forgiveness; voicing his understanding; and asking us to think with him. It subtly touches on how American sports culture so quickly commodifies Black men’s bodies, how it stages violence as entertainment with little thought to the physical and emotional ramifications of that violence and how queer Black men struggle to define themselves within a system that makes their survival contingent on their conformation to violently-enforced heterosexuality. It’s the opera’s best moment because it lets its subject speak with amazing clarity, cutting through to us with all the force of a punch.” 


     Again, we recognize that not all that matters in a larger-than-life figure’s personal history can be boxed into the contents of an opera, particularly a work such as this one which focused itself upon a kind of box, a boxing ring which flows in and out of young and older Emiles’ lives. Perhaps, as I have already suggested, if the librettist had been more of a craftsman of words than he is of plot he might have encapsulated some of what he tells us in ordinary prose and action through the language itself.

      Consider, for example, the image of the “shoe” which dominates this workthe elder dementia patient not even able, at moments, to comprehend what it is, where it goes, and what it means to put on a shoe, let alone to realize he’s missing its “other.” Imagine if that in Emile’s perplexed struggle to contemplate where a shoe goes, instead of arguing it goes with me, he might have been, inspired by a brilliant poet such as Gertrude Stein, able to suggest something like (forgive my hastily hobbled together example) “a shoe is a shoe that goes to show.” Here the shoe, in its very essence, represents not only something that with a shift of a single vowel to consonant takes him to "his" show (life in a boxing-ring) but something that will gradually demonstrate and lead him to a way out of his confusions and intense guilt. He puts on the shoes in the opera to meet up with Paret's son, who frees him in his simple observation that he cannot forgive him for his father's death; he need only forgive himself.

      But time again, as several critics commented, Cristofer simply doesn’t have the language skills.


“Blanchard’s fine ear for scoring and his way with a groove led too often to the orchestra’s riffing idly while singers intoned librettist Michael Cristofer’s leaden phrases (‘I can’t give you what you want. Only you can give you what you want.’)” (David Wright, New York Classical Review)


“Cristofer’s libretto leans too heavily on some of its more meager metaphors and vaguest poetic devices (hats, shoes, baseball bats) and ironically, tends to pull its emotional punches in the investigation either of Griffith’s queer desire or his feelings after killing Paret.” (Ferrari, The Observer)


“Michael Cristofer pares back the libretto’s language to singsong monosyllables and rhymes that at times approach moon-June-spoon levels of sophistication and rarely open a window into the characters’ interior lives.” (Justin Davidson, Vulture)


     Even in the highly moving and crucial centerpiece of this opera, Emile’s solo “What Makes a Man a Man?” there is far too much Broadway-theater poesy to reach the full depths where the music attempts to take it.

    But all that can’t stop Blanchard’s deeply stirring mix of jazz orchestration, symphonic composition, waves of beauteous melody, and barrages of dissonant chords from making this piece a truly grand opera. There are so many times that despite the drama’s dark image of a concrete cinder block being held over a child’s head, the boy ascends through the cyclonic thunder of the score into full manhood so terribly quickly and forcibly that it brings tears to one's eyes. Standing before us is an image of man as flawed as the worst of us, but so talented and beautiful in his humanity that we can do nothing but gasp. And thanks, in particular, to Green’s performance of the youthful Emile of the first act and Owens’ dark-tone growl of the second, we grow to love the boxer who has become so totally boxed in by his life and circumstances that by the time the opera gets around to presenting its Leonard Bernstein-like peace with a self as it moves toward a transcendent moment, we have come to something like an ecstatic acceptance of wherever the music and its voices may finally take us. 

      Gathering up the trilogychild, son, and father—of himself, Griffith is finally able to release himself from his past, and we, similarly, forgive most of the opera’s flaws for allowing us to share in this luminous moment and all the pleasures that came before it.    



*For a full discussion of the meaning and etymology of the word, go here:

**In real life, as opposed to the opera, the marriage lasted only a few months.


Los Angeles, May 1, 2023

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (Mqy 2023)



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