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.