Musical Time Travel

While it is quite common for films to “time travel,” particularly with flashbacks and daydreams, the action of a traditional opera tends to move in a linear fashion, rarely stretching across large expanses of time and almost never traveling into the past. In Champion, however, Terence Blanchard, who has been composing film music for more than three decades, tells Emile Griffith’s story through the recollections of the aging boxer now suffering from dementia. In the scenes from the past—including flashbacks to Emile’s hometown in Virgin Islands, his arrival in New York, and his fateful fight with Benny Paret—Blanchard uses music to create separate sonic spaces, and to evoke these distinct eras and places.

Each of the opera’s ten scenes are indicated with the ring of a bell, like the boxing bell that demarcates the ten rounds of a fight (Audio Track 1). This unique and specific use of sound allows Blanchard to break up the opera’s story into a series of distinct memories. Each ring of the bell indicates to the audience that we are moving to a different moment in Emile’s life. Furthermore, Blanchard, a versatile jazz musician, writes music that alludes to the time and place of each scene. In Round One, “Bamboshay,” Emile’s first recollection is of his early aspirations to become a hatmaker. As he prepares to leave his home in St. Thomas for New York City to pursue his dream, the music takes on a Caribbean flavor in the form of a lively creole dance called the Bamboshay (Audio Track 2). Upon his arrival in New York City, the music once again shifts locales, and Emile and his mother sing a duet in the style of jazzy lounge music. In Round Five, “The Fight,” the scene of Emile’s fateful fight with Benny “Kid” Paret, Blanchard juxtaposes recorded spoken voices calling the fight’s outcome with the cheers and jeers from the choral audience. As the intensity grows, the choir sounds increasingly apocalyptic, foreshadowing the fight’s deadly outcome (Audio Track 3).

Blanchard also allows the opera to time-travel through characterization. He has created three different “Emiles”: the 70-year-old suffering from dementia, the prize fighter in the prime of life, and the young boy in St. Thomas, each portrayed by a different singer and, therefore, with a necessarily different voice type. In Round Three, “From Here to There,” the boxing bell shifts the action quickly from the 1950s nightclub of Kathy Hagen’s gay bar, where Emile has found solace, to Emile’s childhood as he recalls his cousin Blanche reprimanding him for “having the devil in him.” In a trio, Old Emile, Young Emile, and Little Emile pray together for strength (Audio Track 4). Like in film, the casting of the same character at different stages of life allows the work to convincingly capture the many stages of a deeply poignant life.