Champion at the Metropoitan Opera

Boxing, Gaydom, Blanchard all in the Mix

By: - May 09, 2023

The Metropolitan Opera’s heavily promoted Champion is concluding its run in New York. The first opera by Terrence Blanchard, which succeeds his Fire Shut up in My Bones at the Met, has a weaker score than its successor.  One feels that Blanchard as composer of film scores (he is well-known as a colleague of Spike Lee), may have succumbed to the notion that music should lie under the visual track.  

Boxer Emile Griffiths' story is told from tail to head and then in time-mix up.  Latonia Moore, the mother in Fire, is also the mother in this story and she is glorious.  Her voice inspires lyric moments.  Recitatif and sprechstimme are layered successfully.  Paul Groves, not heard often enough, sings with a clipped bravado in the role of Griffiths’ manager.  

Addressing the problem of chamber opera being mounted on a huge, 60 foot high stage, the Met comes late to a game so successfully pursued by George Steel when he ran the New York City Opera over a decade ago. Videos fill what once were empty spaces.  Some of them work.  Yet clouds used both by the New York Philharmonic and the Met do not cover a lack of ideas. 

When Ryan Speedo Green in the title role, sings his big aria, What Makes a Man a Man,  photo images of him fill the picture area stage left and right.  The innovative HERE company would do this with a live camera on his face. Instead, we have photo stills shot beforehand.  They do not help the mood.

The action on the stage is often lively.  In addition to the boxing ring, we have celebrations on St. Thomas Island where Griffiths lived when he was young and also a densely populated gay bar.  The stage is busy but does not advance the plot. 

Drum beats often propel us forward. They are also used to ominous effect when something bad is about to happen. 

Amazing Grace Bumbry, a great Black opera singer, died this week. With productions like this, the Met is making a concerted effort to make up for lost time with artists of color.

Sadly, in a preview of Champion recently held at the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process it was the Black artists who yes-sired, no-sired Met General Manager Peter Gelb who clearly made him comfortable.  Eric Owens, who had this role solo for a long time, has paid a heavy price.  In Champion, he plays Griffiths as a demented old man.

Davone Tines, who has been spurned by the Met until very recently, has not been cast in the roles he deserved because he wrote in social media that the Met was racist. The role of Malcolm X is his: he was magnificent in the Anthony Davis opera Detroit and in Boston, but the Met overlooked him in casting the role for next year’s production. He might have brought life and complexity in addition to his magnificent voice to Champion.  

A desperate Gelb wants to talk about nothing but Ukraine.  His wife claims a one-quarter Ukrainian heritage. Gelb was in Moscow when the war broke out. Putin's people appear to have played him well.

Why this Ukraine focus, when the Metropolitan Opera has real problems of its own?  The failure to attract audiences to fill 3,767 seats is among them. In a recent puff piece on his Sunday life, Gelb sounds dull as dishwater, even claiming that his Sunday morning tennis workouts with a paid pro are a “match.”   Can you imagine Gelb playing USTA League tennis "matches" with ordinary folks in real competition?  Unlikely.  He plays his own game his own way and still seems to be successfully reaching deep into other people’s pockets.  This does not help opera.