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Behind the Scenes at “Champion”

We got a look at how the Washington National Opera's presentation of the powerful story of a boxer came together.

Behind the Scenes at “Champion”
Emile (Aubrey Allicock) prepares to leave his home in the Virgin Islands for New York as the Ring Announcer (David Blalock) looks on. All photographs by Evy Mages

The East Coast premiere of Champion will take place Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Washington National Opera’s presentation of the work, with music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Michael Cristofer, tells the true story of the professional boxer Emile Griffith. Griffith was born in 1938 and came to New York City from the US Virgin Islands as a teenager. The manager at the hat factory where he worked noticed his physique and steered him toward a career in boxing. In 1962, Griffith fought Benny “The Kid” Paret, who teased him at weigh-in about being bisexual. During the fight, Griffith hit Paret so hard that he later died; Griffith was tormented by the memory for the rest of his life.

Champion tells Griffith’s story using three singers to portray the boxer: Arthur Woodley plays him as an old man racked by dementia and guilt. Aubrey Allicock plays him as a fighter (and a lover); Samuel Grace plays him as a child. The mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (a Washington native) plays Griffith’s mother, Emelda; Victor Ryan Robertson plays Paret. The contralto Meredith Arwady plays Kathy Hagan, the proprietor of a bar where Griffith explores his gay life.

Washingtonian attended two rehearsals of the production–a “room run” at the WNO’s rehearsal space in Takoma and the “orchestra tech” rehearsal at the Kennedy Center. Here’s some of what we saw. To hear what we heard, get yourself to the Opera House–Champion is beautiful and heartbreaking, and it’s only here through March 18.

Graves, as Emelda.
Allicock makes his WNO debut as young Emile.
Frederick Ballentine, a current member of the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young artist program, as Luis, Griffith’s adopted son and caregiver, with Arthur Woodley as Griffith.
Samuel Grace makes his WNO debut as Emile when he was a little boy with Leah Hawkins, a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young artist program, as Cousin Blanche. (Woodley, as old Emile, looks on.)
Emile’s wedding to Sadie, also played by Hawkins.
A wedding scene at the room run.
Emile begins to taste success as a boxer.

Aaron Reeder, Patrick Cook, Arwady, and Alex Alburqueque in the bar owned by Arwady’s character, Kathy Hagan. Most of the wigs in the production are made from human hair, but the ones for the drag queens are synthetic–real hair “wouldn’t be true to drag,” says Will Vicari, a member of the design team.

Emile with a bar patron played by Andrew McLaughlin.

Emile knocking out an opponent.
Victor Ryan Robertson, who plays Benny Paret, and Allicock rehearse a fight scene in a Kennedy Center rehearsal room while fight master Joe Isenberg (on the left) and principal dancer Joe Orrach look on. “Don’t be afraid to let the punch go higher,” Isenberg tells them.
Ali Pohanka helps Alburqueque (in chair) and Cook (on bench) get into character.
Between acts, Alburqueque, Arwady, Cook, and Reeder rehearse a short video bound for Facebook.
Time to go upstairs!

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.