A lone boxer slowly and randomly punches his bag, gradually picks up steam and style with gathered strength, and finally begins to punctuate his song in staccato beats on the bag. With that singular, opening composition, Terence Blanchard introduces his and Michael Cristofer’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz — a musical, visual, and dramatic tour de force exploring compelling themes emerging from one man’s life and speaking to our lives today. Drawing upon and intermingling the sounds of jazz, blues, soul, Caribbean, gospel, and classical, the composer provides his librettist a rich canvas to paint a story with words simple and powerful that impact at emotionally gut-wrenching levels. SFJAZZ and San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle have joined their incredible creative forces to produce the true story of a gay boxer of the 1950s and 60s who won titles and hearts around the world but who struggled with who he was as a man, what he did to another one fateful fight, and how he paid dearly in later years for the life he chose.
|Karen Slack, Robert Orth, Kenneth Kellogg & Arthur Woodley|
As the younger Emile in his heyday of form and fitness, Kenneth Kellogg in red hat and suit and surrounded by colorful dancers of his native St. Thomas sings with grinning gusto, “I can swing a baseball bat like nobody’s business, and man, I can sing.” This giant of a man can also make intricate hats, but a reunion with his long lost mother (who had “seven babies in the sun, little orphans everyone”) and an introduction to her friend, Howie Albert, leads to a new life. With Howie (Robert Orth) salivating and singing about how Emile’s “got that body” and mother Emelda (Karen Slack) persuading him in fast beat “a monkey know what tree to climb,” Emile is coaxed to become a boxer as he is introduced to a hoard of reporters while his three-piece suit is slowly ripped off to reveal a boxer’s gleaming body in his trademark red shorts. In the meantime, the elder Emile continues plaintively to look at his shoe, blankly asking in stirring, deep tones, “My shoe goes where?”
|Kenneth Kellogg, Evan Holloway & Arthur Woodley|
Into the older Emile’s memory cinema comes painful scenes of himself as a youngster, sent to live with his mother’s cruel cousin Blanche (Alisha Campbell). With gospel choir in the background, she beats him while with rasp, cruel voice she tells him to ‘hold these bricks above your head.” A young boy with a light, soulful soprano voice sings, “I have the devil deep inside me” as he holds two cinder blocks above his head. In a powerful, moving moment, all three generations of Emile sing, “Make me strong, devil … Make me strong and get me through this night.” To all, the devil is clearly the boy’s, the man’s bisexuality.