Monday, February 29, 2016

"Champion" at SFJAZZ

Last week Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ co-produced a newly revised version of the 2013 Champion, "an opera in jazz" by Terence Blanchard about the 1960s welterweight boxing champion of the world, Emile Griffith.

The eight-performance run sold out the Miner Auditorium and the reviews were rapturous, particularly for the singers who gave beautiful, committed performances in what had to be a grueling schedule for a three-hour opera.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg, who is at least six-feet-five, doesn't look anything like Emile Griffith, who weighed in at 144 pounds for his life-altering welterweight title fight against Benny Paret in Madison Square Gardens in 1962, where Paret ended up in a coma and died ten days later.

It didn't really matter, as Kellogg fully commanded the stage as the adult Emile Griffith in his prime, aided by the magnificent Arthur Woodley as his older self in a nursing home living with dementia, and Evan Holloway as his younger Caribbean self tortured by his Cousin Blanche for being "bad like his mother," who had abandoned seven children for a life in New York.

Karen Slack played the feckless mom with energy and a great soprano voice. She was joined by the reliably brilliant tenor Robert Orth as Emile's real-life trainer Howie Albert, Mark Hernandez as a staccato Ring Anouncer, Michelle Rice as a garish fag-hag bar owner, and Andres Ramirez in a sweet, sensitive portrayal as Luis, who is Old Emile's caretaker.

The music for the first opera written by trumpeter and film score composer Terence Blanchard (above right) was an odd mish-mash. Though billed as "an opera in jazz," the piece kept alternating between a traditional classical orchestra and a starry jazz trio with Marcus Shelby on bass, Edward Simon on piano, and Jaz Sawyer on drums. The jazz sections were generally electrifying while the orchestral accompaniment to the various arias tended to be unmemorable, generic, "classical" music. The best moments were the fully integrated scenes where the jazz trio played off the brass section in the orchestra, and the musical language suddenly felt new and vibrant.

The libretto by playwright/screenwriter/actor Michael Cristofer (above left) was his first attempt at an opera too. Though I'm a big fan of Cristofer as the CEO of Evil Corp on the TV show Mr. Robot, I am not as enthusiastic about his writing, which includes screenplays for movie bombs like Bonfire of the Vanities and the Streep/De Niro Falling in Love. Framing the story of Emile Griffith as the tragedy of a bisexual black man punched into dementia seemed reductive in all the wrong ways. Emile wrestling with his conflicted sexuality seemed to have more to do with 71-year-old, public closet case Michael Cristofer than with Griffith himself. Take a look at the photos below with Emile's lover and adopted son Luis Rodrigo Griffith, and see if you can find any signs of "conflicted" sexuality.

Adoption was how some gay people obtained legal property protections for their partners before the arrival of gay marriage. (The composer Gian Carlo Menotti and the photographer Horst come to mind.) You would think the relationship would have been acknowledged somewhere in the libretto, but I had to Google an LA Times obituary of Griffith to find out: "He had a long relationship in the 1990s with Luis Rodrigo Griffith, a young man whom he later adopted. Griffith married a woman, Mercedes Donastorg, in 1971, divorced soon after and told [biographer Ron] Ross he preferred physical relations with women "but felt more comfortable with men, and could confide in them."

The conducting by Music Director Nicole Paiement was splendid, and director Brian Staufenbiel used his small stage brilliantly, coaxing great performances from the entire cast. There were a few miscues, like a gay bar from an alternate universe, populated with unconvincing drag queens, lesbians, leather/levi guys, and a fag hag owner with her own aria about being "the only pussy in this hole." Again, this seemed to be librettist Cristofer working something out from his own life.

The SFJAZZ Center Miner Auditorium was a perfect venue for Champion because the space already looks like a small boxing arena surrounded by stadium seating. The amplification all evening was subtle, and a relief after Sweeney Todd at the SF Opera House and a few misfires at Davies Hall. Congratulations to everyone involved, and I hope the SFJAZZ Center and Opera Parallèle find a way to partner up again.


Eddie said...

Excellent review, Michael. I grew up watching Griffith box and recall piecing together the amazing story of his life—first the tragedy of the Bennie Paret fight and much later the facts about his personal life. I agreed that the libretto did not always jibe with what I found to be Griffith's surprisingly carefree attitude about being out. Things really changed for the better after he befriended Bennie Jr. Another tragic element of the Paret fight was the curse it placed on referee Ruby Goldstein, who always was haunted by his failure to stop the fight before Paret was permanently concussed. Anyway, I found the show very moving in parts, and agree that the jazz sections were more spot-on (Marcus was great) than some of the orchestral passages. But a very worthwhile show!

Michael Strickland said...

Thanks for the additional info, Eddie. While doing a little research, I was surprised to find that Emile Griffith had a major career late into the 1970s, and then became a trainer to world champions Wilfred Benítez and Juan Laporte, and even did a stint as the coach of the Danish National Boxing Team in 1979-1980. In other words, he was more interesting than the opera's depiction of him as a Gay Victim. I used to play in the San Francisco Gay Softball League in the 1970s-1990s with a lot of black guys, some on the down-low and others like former Dodgers/A's baseball pro Glenn Burke who was way out of the closet. None of them seemed to have any problem with the idea of being gay.

Hattie said...

Nice review and some good insights here. Thanks, Mike.