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Five-Time Grammy Award-Winning Composer Terence Blanchard and Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright Michael Cristofer to Premiere New Opera at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

“Champion,” a co-commission with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis, will receive world premiere June 15 – 30, 2013

Oct. 29, 2012 – Continuing their individual traditions of commissioning music that showcases the talents of the world’s best contemporary composers, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis have joined forces in the development of a new opera, featuring a powerhouse team of writers and performers.  With music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Michael Cristofer, Champion blends the uniquely American tradition of jazz with the dramatic power of opera.  Based on the story of prizefighter Emile Griffith, the opera will star Denyce Graves, Arthur Woodley, Robert Orth, Aubrey Allicock, and Meredith Arwady.  Directed by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Artistic Director James Robinson and conducted by George Manahan, Champion will receive its world premiere June 15 – 30, 2013 as part of Opera Theatre’s 2013 Festival Season.

The Story of Champion

Emile Griffith was a three-time world welterweight champion and twice a world middleweight champion, fighting from the late 1950s into the 1970s.  However, one of his greatest professional triumphs – winning back the title from Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1962 – was also his greatest personal tragedy.  The seventeen punches he landed on Paret in seven seconds resulted in not only a knockout, but also a coma from which Paret would never recover.  Paret would die ten days later.  For Griffith, who had never wanted to be a boxer, the impact of the fight was devastating, and his career soon went downhill.

Before that life-changing televised fight, in a room full of press and officials, Paret had mocked Griffith with a derogatory term for homosexual.  Years later, Griffith’s sexuality was revealed after he was nearly killed by a gang outside a gay bar in New York. “I kill a man,” Griffith was quoted to have said, “and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin.”  Much later in his life, beginning to suffer from dementia, Griffith met the son of his opponent, Benny Jr., who was two years old at the time of the match, and who forgave the aging champion.  In an inspiring, moving, and painful journey of self-discovery, Champion presents audiences with a contemporary tragic hero – a story of strength, courage, rage, regret, and compassion.

The Cast of Champion

Champion marks the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debut for one of the world’s most acclaimed mezzo-sopranos, Denyce Graves, who originated the title role in Toni Morrison’s opera Margaret Garner.  Ms. Graves sings the role of Emelda, Griffith’s mother. The cast is led by Arthur Woodley, distinguished for his portrayal of the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess world-wide, in the central role of Emile Griffith.  Aubrey Allicock returns to Opera Theatre to play Young Emile after performances as Mamoud in The Death of Klinghoffer in 2011 and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland in 2012.  Robert Orth, who has one of this country’s strongest pedigrees for originating roles in new American operas, plays trainer Howie Albert.  2012 Grammy Award-winner Meredith Arwady plays bar owner Kathy Hagen.  Rounding out the principal roles are Victor Ryan Robertson, doubling as Benny ‘The Kid’ Paret and Benny Jr. and Brian Arreola as Luis Rodrigo Griffith, Emile’s adopted son.

The Creative Team for Champion

Renowned for his work as a composer of hauntingly beautiful jazz pieces for small ensembles, symphonic settings, film, and stage, Terence Blanchard has received five Grammy Awards, including the 2007 Large Ensemble Grammy for A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Most recently for film, he wrote the score to Lucasfilm’s Red Tails, which chronicled the story of the Tuskegee pilots and starred Cuba Gooding, Jr.  His music was also recently represented on Broadway with the score to Emily Mann’s new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Blair Underwood.  Champion is Mr. Blanchard’s first opera.  “My father loved opera,” Mr. Blanchard says, “He was a baritone who studied opera, so it was impossible not to feel an emotional connection to him in writing Champion.  I was drawn to tell Emile’s story through music from the moment I first heard of his incredible journey.  I knew there was no other way to tell this story but through the unique power of opera.”

For playwright, filmmaker, and actor Michael Cristofer, the Champion libretto is also a first.  In 1977, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play for The Shadow Box.  Mr. Cristofer’s other plays include Breaking Up, Black Angel, The Lady and the Clarinet which starred Stockard Channing, and Amazing Grace starring Marsha Mason, which received the American Theater Critics Award for Best Play in 1997.  His work on such films as The Witches of Eastwick, Falling in Love, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and HBO’s Gia has earned him a Golden Globe, a Writer’s Guild Award, two Emmy nominations, and a best director award from the Director’s Guild of America.  Currently, he appears on the NBC drama Smash. “Champion is the story of a man struggling to make peace with himself and to find his place in the world… as a fighter and a gay man,” Mr. Cristofer says.  “It’s the story of courage in the face of sexual oppression, of love in the face of hate, of grace in the face of physical and mental decline.  For me, Emile’s story not only asks the question of what it means to be a man. It asks what it means to be a human being.”

Director James Robinson is one of America’s most sought-after opera directors, winning wide acclaim for productions that range from standard opera repertory to world premieres and rarely performed works.  Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Mr. Robinson has staged productions for major opera companies, including New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Canadian Opera Company, San Francisco Opera, and Seattle Opera.

Conductor George Manahan continues an esteemed career embracing everything from opera to the concert stage, the traditional to the contemporary.  Currently Director of Orchestral Studies at the Manhattan School of Music and Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra, Mr. Manahan served as Music Director of the New York City Opera for fourteen seasons.  He has conducted for the New Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, Opera National de Paris, and the Teatro de Communale de Bologna, among others.  In 2011, he was recognized by ASCAP for his “career-long advocacy of American composers and the music of our time.”

Commissioning Partner and Underwriting

Co-commissioning partner Jazz St. Louis has been an integral part of the creation and development of this opera.  Terence Blanchard has performed with Jazz St. Louis on many occasions, and through that relationship, Jazz St. Louis Executive Director Gene Dobbs Bradford introduced Blanchard to Opera Theatre.  “Terence Blanchard is among the best jazz composers and musicians living today. We believe that this new opera will be remembered as a major work in the decades to come, both for American jazz and for American opera, as it bridges the two audiences and art forms in a fresh and exciting way.” says Mr. Bradford.

The commissioning and development of Champion was made possible with a leadership gift from the Whitaker Foundation, and with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts and OPERA America’s Opera Fund.  The production of Champion is made possible with a leadership gift from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and generous support from the Whitaker Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Phoebe Dent WeilNew Voices for Opera, the audience development programming surrounding the project, is made possible by OPERA America’s Opera Fund and PNC Arts Alive.

Performance Schedule

Champion will be presented as part of Opera Theatre’s 2013 Festival Season (May 25 – June 30, 2013), which also includes Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a double bill of Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and Smetana’s The KissChampion will receive six performances, on June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, and 30, 2013.  Tickets to Champion are now available as part of a subscription to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Single tickets will go on sale February, 2013.


About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is one of the leading American opera companies, known for a spring festival of inventive new productions, sung in English, featuring the finest American singers and accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony.  As of 2012 Opera Theatre has presented 22 world premieres and 23 American premieres – which may be the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company.  Described by The Sunday Times of London as “one of the few American companies worth the transatlantic fare,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis annually welcomes visitors from nearly every state and close to a dozen foreign countries. Although the size of the theater typically limits box office income to less than a quarter of the budget, the company has consistently produced work of the highest quality while never accumulating a deficit. 


Opera Theatre also has a long tradition of discovering and promoting the careers of the finest operatic artists of the current generation.  Among the artists who had important early opportunities at Opera Theatre are Christine Brewer, Susan Graham, Nathan Gunn, Patricia Racette, Thomas Hampson, Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Sylvia McNair, Erie Mills, Dwayne Croft, Kelly Kaduce, and Lawrence Brownlee.  Opera Theatre has always been known for distinguished leadership: founding general director Richard Gaddes was succeeded in 1985 by general director Charles MacKay, with famed British stage director Colin Graham as artistic director and Stephen Lord (1992 – present) as music director.  Timothy O’Leary was named general director in October 2008 with acclaimed stage director James Robinson succeeding Colin Graham. For more information, visit


Opera Theatre gratefully acknowledges season presenting sponsor Wells Fargo Advisors.


Opera Theatre is a sustaining member of the Arts & Education Council of Greater Saint Louis, and receives major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Missouri Arts Council.


About Jazz St. Louis


Jazz St. Louis is on an incredible journey to advance the uniquely American art of jazz in St. Louis through live performance, education, and outreach. Each year, this non-profit organization presents over 270 performances on its internationally-acclaimed Jazz at the Bistro concert series. Artists appearing onstage at the Bistro regularly participate in one of Jazz St. Louis’s several education and outreach offerings. This unique, successful model sets the organization apart as an institution that presents jazz, educates future audiences, and nurtures budding musicians. Over 10,000 students are impacted each year by the organization’s work – all of which is offered free of cost to area schools and students. In this three-pronged approach, Jazz St. Louis maintains a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and artistic quality unmatched in its field.


Jazz St. Louis gratefully acknowledges Wells Fargo Advisors as the presenting sponsor of the 2011-12 and 2012-2013 Jazz at the Bistro Series.


Jazz St. Louis receives significant support from the Arthur and Helen Baer Foundation, the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the Missouri Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, PNC Arts Alive, the Regional Arts Commission, the Trio Foundation of St. Louis, and the Whitaker Foundation.