English Language Arts, History, Writing, Theatre Design
- Butcher paper
Who are you? What events have shaped who you have become? What will people remember you by?
Champion is a biographical opera that tells the life story of welterweight boxing champion, Emile Griffith. In this activity, students will identify aspects of a biography, learn about African American singers’ journey to the Met, and stage a biographical opera of their own.
STEP 1. INQUIRE
Begin by asking students if they have ever read a biography before. Ask students to share examples from their own reading. If students have not yet read a biography, share with them that a biography is, in its most simple form, a book that tells someone’s life story. Ask students the following questions:
- What goes into telling a good story?
- What keeps you engaged when you are reading?
- If you are meeting someone for the first time, what things do you want to find out about them?
- How might an author structure someone’s life story when writing a biography?
It is likely that students will identify the standard beginning, middle, and end storytelling model. If this is the first (and most likely response), ask students how else might an author tell someone’s life story? After students brainstorm share with them that the opera they will learn about, Champion, does not quite follow a standard storytelling model. Rather, the opera tells the story of welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith through a variety of flashbacks (see deep dive “Musical Time Travel”). Consider showing the first few minutes of Dan Klores and Ron Berger’s 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. If students have not already done so, have them read the opera’s synopsis.
STEP 2. GRADUAL RELEASE: GUIDED INSTRUCTION
Next, as a class, map out Emile’s story by creating a “Life-Size Biography”—an activity that students will complete themselves in the next part of this activity. To create a life-size biography, first cut six feet of butcher paper (any color will do). Then, have a student trace the outline of one of their peers on the butcher paper. Once the student has been traced, cut out the outlined body and place the newly created figure on the board. Tell students they are going to create a life-size biography by identifying and jotting down key aspects of Emile’s life onto various parts of the body. Before doing so, however, students must bring Emile to life. Have students draw Emile’s face and add elements of his boxing outfit such as black boxing shorts and red gloves to his figure. Once Emile has been created, have students identify and write the following aspects of his life story onto the figure. As they complete this part, encourage students to reference the synopsis.
Head: What is Emile’s full name and what is one word or phrase that captures his identity? (e.g., Welterweight Champion)
Heart: What is Emile passionate about?
Torso: Who had a big impact on Emile’s life: What are their names, and who are they? Additionally, what are three things that interested you about Emile’s life?
Left arm: What made Emile famous?
Right arm: Family history: When and where was Emile born? Does he have any siblings? Is he married?
Legs: What challenges did Emile face?
STEP 3. GRADUAL RELEASE: COLLABORATIVE LEARNING
After the class has collectively created the life-size biography of Emile Griffith, students should be grouped in pairs or trios for the next part of the activity.
Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the triumphant season opener of the 2021–22 season, was the first time the Met staged an opera by a Black composer. This season, the Met welcomes back six-time Grammy Award–winner Blanchard with a Met premiere of Champion. In this next part of the activity, students will discover a number of African American performers who have made significant contributions to opera, paving the way for generations to come.
Begin this next part of the activity by sharing the following insights written by Met scholar and UNT College of Information faculty member Dr. Maurice Wheeler:
The history of African American performers at the Metropolitan Opera began late in the 19th century, much earlier than many contemporary opera enthusiasts would have imagined. Yet, it was not until 1955, when contralto Marian Anderson made her Met debut as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, that an African American artist took center stage in a principal role. Media attention surrounding Anderson’s first appearance shined a spotlight on the rank injustices that preceded that moment and, in tandem with contemporary political events, ushered in a new age for opera in the United States. The succeeding 30 years of musical history at the Met were profoundly shaped by the artistry of black singers… It is now inconceivable to consider opera in America and elsewhere without the voices of the black singers who have risen to stardom around the globe.
In the pairs or small groups you have arranged, students will create a Life-Size Biography of one of the following African American artists:
Derek Lee Ragin
Ryan Speedo Green+
Walter Russell III
*artists who, although they did not perform at the Met, have made significant contributions to opera
+ individuals that are a part of the Met’s premiere of Champion
The activity students complete remains the same as the Emile Griffith Life-Size Biography, however now with a new person. Have students search for information about the artist they have been assigned by completing research through the Met’s website, digital newspaper articles, recorded interviews and performances, program notes, artist’s websites, and written biographies.
Head: What is the artist’s full name and what is one word or phrase that captures their identity?
Heart: What is the artist passionate about?
Torso: Who had a big impact on the artist’s life: What are their names, and who are they? Additionally, what are three things that sparked you about your artist’s life?
Left arm: What made the artist famous?
Right arm: Family history: When and where was the artist born? Do they have any siblings? Are they married?
Legs: What challenges did the artist face?
At the conclusion of the activity, students should complete a gallery walk learning about the African American artists who have made significant and lasting impacts throughout their careers.
STEP 4. GRADUAL RELEASE: INDEPENDENT PRACTICE
To conclude this activity, students will now have a chance to imagine a biographical opera of their own. Tell students that before a team of collaborative artists begins working on a production, they often gather to create a collage of their ideas. In this final part of the activity students will create a mood board detailing aspect of a new biographical opera.
First, students should choose an individual whose life will be the center of their biographical opera. Students may either interview someone they know (Story Corps’ The Great Thanksgiving Listen has numerous resources for helping students craft an interview) or research information on someone of their choosing.
Once students have compiled notes from their interview or research, have them answer the following:
- What is the setting of your biographical opera? Will the opera stay in one place and time period, move thorough the individual’s life chronologically, or move back and forth through the various settings via flashbacks like Champion?
- What will the music sound like?
- What will the costumes and stage design look like?
- What props will be used?
- Will any special lighting or stage effects be used?
After students have brainstormed, they will now create a mood board that shows their vision for their new production. Students may cut out images from magazines and newspapers or print off images from the web that communicate the setting, costumes, storyline, and stage design, and place them on a large posterboard. Have students consider using a variety of colors, textures, patterns, and images to articulate their new production’s vision.
Once completed, have students complete a gallery walk to view their peers’ mood boards. Have students make observations—what do they see? Can they clearly identify the setting? What questions do they have for the producer to better clarify their vision?
NOTE FOR TEACHERS: In 2019 the Met shared a new exhibit, “Black Voices at the Met,” which celebrated the many and great contributions made by African American artists at the Met. The exhibit chronicled the decades-long struggle for racial equality in our nation’s leading opera house. The exhibit is now presented in a digital format on the Met’s website allowing this vital resource to be more widely available to all. We encourage schools to purchase the companion CD, Black Voices Rise: African American Artists at the Met, 1955–1985, to add to their libraries. The CD includes 15 tracks and an informational booklet with liner notes and biographies of each performer.
In the Met’s premiere of Champion, bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green sings the role of Young Emile Griffith. Ryan’s journey to the Met’s stage has been anything but easy. Yet, through hard work, commitment, and perseverance, Ryan is one of the Met’s shining stars. It was on a school field trip with the Governor’s School to see the Met’s production of Bizet’s Carmen, where a youthful Ryan proclaimed, “I’m going to sing at the Met.” To learn about Ryan’s journey, read Daniel Bergner’s biography Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family.