Following the critical and box office success this fall of Shut Up Fire in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, the first work of a black composer presented by the Metropolitan Opera, the company announced Tuesday that it will stage his earlier opera: Champion next season.
Typically, operatic seasons are planned five or more years in advance in a global game of Tetris with a schedule of artists. But the Met uncharacteristically quickly followed Fire, releasing Champion in April 2023; Peter Gelb, the company’s CEO, said production was going “at the dime line.”
“In part, the future sustainability of the Metro depends on our ability to make change,” he added. “We want opera to be present in the world we live in.”
Blanchard greeted the news, encouraged by his experience of bringing “Fire” onto the Met stage. “Going through the process with that level of talent is a serious drug, man,” he said in an interview. “To experience it just once, you will want to experience it again.”
The premiere of the so-called jazz opera Champion took place in 2013 at the St. Louis Opera House, directed by James Robinson, which will travel to New York. (The company also unveiled Fire in 2019, and Robinson later directed it alongside Camilla A. Brown at the Met.) The film is based on the life of upscale gay boxer Emile Griffith, who was taunted by homophobic slurs. rival Benny Paret ahead of the 1962 title match that resulted in Paret’s death. “I killed a man, and the world forgives me,” says Michael Christopher’s libretto. “I love a man and the world wants to kill me.”
“Emile Griffith never wanted to be a world champion,” said Christopher, the Tony Award-winning playwright, in a statement. “He wanted to play baseball. He wanted to make hats. And most of all he wanted to sing. If he brought his story of forgiveness and redemption to the Met to be sung from this great stage, it would make him very, very happy. “
The work depicts Griffith at different stages of his life. At the Met, his younger self will be performed by Ryan Speedo Green, who has excelled in Fire and other productions this fall; while Eric Owens will portray him as an older man. Yannick Nezet-Séguin, Met’s music director who also directed Fire, will conduct.
Fire was a metropolitan triumph in many ways. He was warmly received by critics and his last four performances have been sold out. Blanchard had already been asked to write a new opera for the company, but in the meantime, according to Gelb, the fast-paced production of Champion was conceived “as a result of Fire’s success.”
Between shows in St. Louis and New York, Blanchard edited Fire and continued to tune it during rehearsals, studying the sound of the Met’s huge audience. He plans to do the same for Champion, his first opera – “a lot of filming in the dark,” he said, adding that since then he has learned a lot more about writing for voice and wants to revise the score with a post-“fiery” intelligence. Christopher’s libretto and Robinson’s productions will also undergo changes.
“The story itself is more dramatic than Fire,” Blanchard said. “I expect it to be a very dramatic production, but we want to cut some scenes and I want to go and look for where I can add a chorus.”
Blanchard especially looks forward to reuniting with Nézé-Séguin. “Damn, he got it,” he said of the conductor. “He’s smart and he’s passionate about it.”
“Champion” and “Fire” The Metropolitan intends to present corporate premieres of operas by black composers for three seasons in a row. (X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis, 1986, is slated for fall 2023.) When asked what this boded for the coming years, Gelb replied, “This is the way to the future.”
Blanchard said the streak, after nearly 140 years of neglect by black composers, was a “big shift.” But, he added, “It’s not just African Americans.”
“These are people from all walks of life,” he said. “We have to see how this all ends, but I don’t want to be a sign. I wanted Fire to open doors for everyone. And the talent is there. “