Champion : Opera Review

Champion. Photo Ken Howard Champion. Photo Ken Howard

Champion is the first opera by jazz trumpet player Terence Blanchard. It premiered at the St. Louis opera in 2013. The Opéra de Montréal presented its Canadian premiere.

Emile Griffith is shown in three forms: in the present as an old man (Arthur Woodley), in the past as a young man (Aubrey Allicock) and as a young boy (Nathan Dibula).

The opera in two acts is a colourful opera, which feels like a musical. The beginning starts slow in a sad tone before moving to more colourful acts. It feels like a musical piece with many artists singing and dancing. The chorus of the Opéra de Montréal and the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir accompany the opera singers. 

Luis Griffith (Ashita Tennekoon) and Emile Griffith (Arthur Woodley)
 © Yves Renaud

The opera is a flashback of Emile Griffith’s life, a famous boxer in the ’60s who is also known for sending Benny Paret into a coma leading to his death.. It starts with Griffith as an old man who suffers from dementia and is with his caretaker Luis (Asitha Tennekoon).

Old Griffith travels through the stage as he sees his younger version full of life and dreams.

Emelda Griffith (Catherine Daniel)
 © Yves Renaud

“I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me.” This quote sums up the underlying theme of the opera and Emile’s struggles. How canGriffith get away with killing a man? How does he live with it, even though he is traumatized forever. It is an accident but he feels bad and even tries to visit Benny Paret at the hospital but they won’t let him visit. After all, Griffith only wants to make hats. It is his passion.

He then travels to New York alone to find his mother who left him and his six siblings behind in the Virgin Islands. Alcoholic Emelda Griffith (Catherine Daniel) left her children scattered on the island with various family members. She mistakes Emile for her oldest son.

Emelda tries to persuade Howie Albert (Brett Polegato) to hire her son as a hat maker but upon seeing Emile’s physique, Howie has other plans. He teaches Emile to box and quickly, he becomes a star in the boxing world with his build and his ravishing smile.


Emile has the devil in him, according to his aunt. He gets his build from holding up cinder blocks.

His career starts well and he’s got money to do what he wants. As he stumbles upon an underground gay bar, he finds himself in an inner battle.

When “The Kid” (Victor Ryan Robertson) mocks his sexuality at the shoot before their match, Emile is shocked and tries to talk about it with his coach Howie who refuses to hear anything. To him, Emile should just show his masculinity and punch The Kid until he’s knocked out.

Imagine receiving 17 blows in seven seconds. It seems impossible but Emile does it. He sends The Kid to the hospital in a coma, a coma he never wakes up from.

What did I love about this opera? I loved the diversity, the colours, the jazzy music and the complexity of Emile Griffith’s character, a young man torn  and pushed into a world he in’t interested in,  a gentle man who wouldn’t hurt anyone but ends up killing an opponent, a man who simply wants to make hats, sing and swing a bat, an artist who is pushed into the sports realm because a man shouldn’t want to do something artsy or creative, but  should do something manly like boxing.

It looks like a happy opera but there is a lot of depth and sadness.

Champion was performed at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Details HERE. For more info about the Opéra de Montréal season and tickets, click HERE.