When trumpeter Terence Blanchard isn’t performing, he often hits the boxing gym for a workout.
His avocation came in handy when the Grammy Award-winning jazz musician was asked to compose the music for “Champion,” about the life of gay boxer Emile Griffith.
The opera, with a libretto by playwright Michael Cristofer (whose “Shadow Box” won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award), premiered this month at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis to strong reviews.
Griffith’s story, crafted by Cristofer like a boxing match in 10 scenes, offered plenty of drama for Blanchard to color with a lush orchestral touch. In the 1962 welterweight title bout, Griffith’s brutal punches put Benny “The Kid” Paret in a coma. He died 10 days later.
During the match, Paret called Griffith “maricon” (derogatory Spanish slang for “homosexual”). Still, the death haunted Griffith for years. Griffith’s career went downhill. He was constantly harassed and almost beaten to death at a gay bar in New York. At 75, he lives on Long Island and suffers from dementia pugilistica.
Blanchard, a prolific composer who has scored many of director Spike Lee’s films, talked to me at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York.
Cole: “Champion,” is up and running and you’ve just released a new CD, “Magnetic,” on Blue Note. You’ve been a busy man.
Blanchard: The opera has consumed my life for three years. The album was like a blur. We really had fun doing it, but as soon as we finished it and mixed it, I went right back to the opera.
Cole: Did you have any exposure to opera early in your musical career?
Blanchard: I grew up listening to opera. My father was a singer, a baritone, and he’d always have performances and recitals. He had those RCA Victor records. The main thing for me was being confident and comfortable with the musical language I was using.
My composition teacher, Roger Dickerson, told me when I started writing for film that I needed to start to think about how to take those phrases and rhythms and notate that for this world. That’s what I drew upon to write this opera. What I tried to do is tell a story musically.
Cole: When you sat down to write, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
Blanchard: I had stop thinking about writing songs. That took a while to get accustomed to.
Cole: How did you connect to Emile Griffith and his world?
Blanchard: I already had a connection because I’ve been boxing for a long time. One of my best friends, who told me about Emile, was a former heavyweight champion himself. I’ve hung out in a lot of great boxing gyms.
Cole: What parts of the opera stood out when you first saw it rehearsed with the music?
Blanchard: In one scene, you have the old Emile standing on a balcony, and then you have the young Emile the fighter. The young Emile has been tormented by his aunt. She made him hold cinder blocks above his head.
He sings this aria, “The Night Is Long,” about dealing with his sexuality, in which he says, ‘I have the devil inside me.’ Seeing that staged was very powerful.
Cole: What do you want audiences to take away from Griffith’s story and your music?
Blanchard: Boxing is one of the most misunderstood sports. While it is very barbaric and violent, there’s a science to it, a brilliance to it that doesn’t get talked about. People truly don’t understand the dedication it takes. That’s the thing that broke my heart about Emile’s story.
For him to reach the highest level of achievement and not be able to share that moment with someone who he loves openly is a travesty.
(The remaining performances of “Champion” are tomorrow and Sunday at Opera Theater of St. Louis, 210 Hazel Ave., St. Louis, Missouri. Information: http://www.opera-stl.org; +1-314-961-0644.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Hephzibah Anderson on books.