Terence Blanchard's Champion: An Opera in Jazz -- a Unanimous Winner in San Francisco

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It's just past mid-February, and yet it seems safer than safe to claim that one of the year's most exciting musical productions just opened at the SFJazz Center. The name alone, Champion: An Opera in Jazz, tells you how innovative it is. The venue, too, indicates that this is not your typical opera. It's running only through Feb. 28, so you may want to go buy tickets now, then come back and finish reading this.

Traditionally, operas tend to be thin, if entertaining, dramatically, generally centered on betrayed or star-crossed lovers, ending in glorious tragic death. That is certainly not the case with Champion, the gripping story of real-life welterweight champ Emile Griffith, who in 1962 killed opponent Benny Paret in the ring ("seventeen blows in less than seven seconds") after Paret taunted him about his sexuality. Griffith lived on until just after the Champion world premiere, at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in 2013--tormented until the end by Paret's death, perplexed that the world could forgive him for killing a man but not for loving one.

Michael Cristopher's libretto is deep and multilayered. Griffith is portrayed as a child (Moses Abrahamson or Evan Holloway), in his prime (Kenneth Kellogg), and in his pitiful last years (the amazing Arthur Woodley), living with his caretaker/adopted son (Andres Ramirez), suffering from "pugilistic dementia," looking back over a life in which good seemed always quickly overtaken by bad. In addition to "Kid" Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson), we meet Griffith's neglectful mother (Karen Slack, who is given a moment to sing of her own difficult life); his cigar-chomping trainer (Robert Orth); a woman whose seedy bar introduces Griffith to another side of life (Michelle Rice); the woman he never should have married (Sadie Donastrog Griffith), and many others, including Saint Thomas locals, boxing fans, and members of the press, portrayed by a busy singing and dancing chorus. Unlike most productions of traditional operas, in which the vocals are foremost and the acting can be uneven, every performer here is a fine singer and actor. Woodley is truly heartbreaking.

The story is even more intense because you know it's true. (One departing audience member was heard to say, "I can breathe again.") Cristopher certainly knows something about immersive storytelling: He is a Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright (Shadow Box), and actor (American Horror Story, for one). And underpinning all, of course, is the music, by Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard. He created the scores for all Spike Lee's films, from Jungle Fever (1991) to the current-day Chi-Raq, but had never before composed an opera. And he nailed it. Making full use of SFJazz Center's intimate space and excellent acoustics are a twenty-six-piece orchestra and jazz trio that Blanchard uses inventively at every moment. The musical colors vary with each scene, from the full orchestra, with a string-accented ballad or lively brass-infused dance, to the trio to the solo bass highlighting a particularly dramatic moment. Choreographer Joe Orrach even adds a percussive rat-a-tat with a boxer's speed bag and jump rope.

The conductor and artistic director of this exemplary work is Nicole Paiement, founder of the Bay Area's terrifically imaginative Opera Parallèle. With its focus on contemporary chamber opera, this company has brought us productions of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking and John Harbison's Gatsby, the American premiere of Tarik O'Regan's Heart of Darkness and Brecht and Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel, to name a few.

We don't have long to wait for something else from Paiement and her cross-discipline designer and director husband, Brian Staufenbiel. In April comes a spooky new production of The Lighthouse (music and libretto by Peter Maxwell Davies), about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers off the Scottish coast in 1900. This production will be even more intimate than Champion, with a twelve-member orchestra and three singers (portraying six lighthouse keepers, past and present). One of the three will be baritone Robert Orth, who got a particularly big hand for his portrayal of Emile Griffith's trainer, Howie Albert. Can't wait.

Champion: An Opera in Jazz: Through Feb. 28, SFJazz Center, 301 Franklin St., S.F., 866.920.5299, sfjazz.org. The Lighthouse: April 29-May 1, Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F., 866.811.4111, zspace.org.

Photograph: Kenneth Kellogg, Arthur Woodley, and Karen Slack at SFJazz Center.
Photo by Bill Evans