In an inviting, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed venue, New Yorkers finally got a sampling of Champion, a new opera by Grammy-winning composer Terence Blanchard and playwright/librettist Michael Cristofer.

This “opera in jazz” tells the real-life story of closeted gay boxer Emile Griffith and his fateful bout with homophobic rival Benny Paret. The evening toggled between four excerpts from the production and a panel discussion moderated by Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, where the production opens in March. The panel featured Composer Blanchard and Director Jim Robinson, Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL). Champion was co-missioned by both OTSL and Jazz Saint Louis. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who plays Emelda Griffith, Emile’s mother, also joined the panel.

Works & Process at the Guggenheim is a series which combines performance and conversation in the sleek, subterranean Peter B. Lewis Theater  The evening started with principal dancer Joe Orrach bounding onstage in gym sweats, brandishing a jump rope. Orrach proceeded to perform a tap number of increasing rhythmic intensity, setting the tone for the theme of the performance. What followed was a series of four excerpts, three from Act One, featuring Graves and baritone Kenneth Kellogg, the latter both physically imposing and vocally transcendent as the doomed welterweight fighter. Graves likewise dazzled in their duet, “Is that my boy?”

Pianist Thomas Bagwell provided the sole instrumental embellishment, offering a stark showcase for the powerful singers, leaving the audience to imagine what the songs might sound like with a full orchestra. Lighting projections and a vivid shawl worn by Graves also helped dramatize the musical selections. While it was enlightening to hear members of the creative team discuss the process of bringing Champion from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., one couldn’t help pining for more of the show itself. In particular, an appearance by the character of Benny Paret would have been a natural component of the evening. Instead, the final selection from the opera was a duet set in a bar between Kellogg and a potential male suitor, played by the gifted Andrew McLaughlin. While McLaughlin and Kellogg were well-matched vocally, Kellogg’s physical stature had him towering over his suitor. This excerpt was the least satisfying, at least partly because the coarse lyrics seemed to diminish the potential for pathos the more nuanced music suggested.

Still, the score struck haunting minor notes, suggesting the blues roots of the jazz-inspired score. The addition of a string and a woodwind instrument, for example, would doubtless have helped pitch the musical selections closer to what one could imagine the full production will sound like when it arrives in the nation’s capital next month.

In all, an exciting new work, which suggests that a hybrid approach to opera, in a distinctly American idiom may be a fruitful new direction for that most European of musical genres.

Works & Process Presents Washington National Opera’s Champion by Terence Blanchard, Feb.12, 2017 at the Guggenheim Museum, located at 1071 Fifth Avenue in New York.

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This post was written by Jack Wernick.

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