Championing Opera’s Next Generation

The Met's ‘edgy’ new season is anything but. It needs to look elsewhere if it is to revive this most dramatic of musical genres.

Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's Champion.
Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's Champion. Credit: Zenith Richards / Met Opera

It is the trope of the age. Opera is elitist, its grey-haired audiences dwindling and out of touch with the post-millennial generation. Obsessed with the nineteenth century, never mind the twentieth or twenty-first. New York’s Metropolitan Opera (Met) says, ‘Nope’. And they have embarked on a risky mission, mounting little-known works, to bring back the crowds.

This season features Champion, the African American jazz composer Terence Blanchard’s first opera. It is about Emile Griffith, welterweight boxer, who battered Benny ‘Kid’ Paret to death in a Madison Square Garden ring on March 24 1962 with his notorious flurry of seventeen blows to the head in seven seconds.

Griffith was vilified for being a hat-maker and homosexual – no kidding – by Paret in a weigh-in spat. In the ring, Griffith lost it. His life was haunted ever after by wondering why he was forgiven for slaying Paret, but not for being gay. What society thought of his hat-making skills is not recorded.

The raison d’être for the work is buried in the last act when Griffith poignantly reflects, ‘I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person.’ Yes, a regrettable, mixed-up state of affairs, but is it of such profundity that Griffith merits operatic treatment?

Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened the Met’s 21/22 season is in a different class. It is set in 1970’s Gibsland, Louisiana, based on the memoirs of Charles M. Blow, the American columnist and TV presenter. Fire, like Champion, is rooted in psychological trauma. Blow suffered sexual abuse in childhood, the victim of a predatory cousin living in his overcrowded single-parent household.

Fire navigates Blow’s adolescence and his often-harrowing attempts to deal with the trauma of abuse. It is a heart-rending, but ultimately heart-lifting story. One also suspects it is not unusual for the time – overcrowded households being frequently packed tight with testosterone-high adolescents.

The upcoming 23/24 Met season offers more ‘new’ material. X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, the 1986 brainchild of American composer, Malcolm Davis, is already lifting the eyebrows of season ticket holders. The 1960’s outspoken preacher of Muslim activism, racism, violence and antisemitism – pure hate sums him up nicely – was assassinated in 1965 by members of The Nation of Islam, opponents of X’s Sunni Muslim faction.

Do we need to legitimise Malcolm X in an opera? Why is the Met condoning this whitewash? What next? T: The Life and Times of Donald Trump? Don’t count on it. That would be a rehabilitation too far.

Then there’s the premiere of Dead Man Walking, next season’s feel-good opening work, starring star mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen. American composer Jake Heggie’s millennium opera, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir, is about her fight for the soul of a condemned murderer on death row in 1980’s New Orleans.

This may be the Met’s ‘highly anticipated’ premiere – the company’s own words – but anticipated by whom? Like X, the Heggie opera is a tired old thing. It has been tramping America’s boards for 20 years already, up to now disdained by the Met. Suddenly, there has been a change of heart. Why?

Undoubtedly, the ‘cheer yourself up at the opera’ era at New York’s Lincoln Center is over. Death Row is the new kid on the block. The bet is, new audiences are going to be attracted, post Covid, by politically correct, musically difficult morality tales. Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, now deemed fuddy duddy former seat stuffers, are being demoted.

It’s all a long way from the safe space of George Gershwin’s familiar Porgy and Bess, which opened the 2019/2020 season. The puff at the time was that this was a defining break with tradition. What on earth has been going on in the minds of Met management since? Will the strategy work, or is it a flash in the pan, driving traditional audiences away?

The Met is struggling. Audiences frequently top out at forty per cent capacity in the 3,700-seat house. Donors are slower at putting their hands in their pockets. The new generation of America’s super rich, who support the art form through tax deductible donations, inhabit Silicon Glen, not New York’s Upper West Side.

These new masters of the universe show little interest in supporting what they see as an anachronism back east. Elon Musk will be the subject of a great opera one day – the late Steve Jobs already is, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Malcolm Bates – but I doubt Musk will sponsor any.

Champion is mid its first run in Manhattan. Is it good enough to rebuild audiences? Perhaps the musical brilliance and the spectacle outshine the quaintly dated plot. For few of today’s young generation have any interest in what they regard as an outmoded, brutal sport. Traditional boxing.

No such luck. Sadly, the piece is fundamentally flawed, one of the clunkiest modern operas I have seen and heard. Blanchard’s music rarely goes anywhere. Michael Cristofer’s libretto is dire. He may be accomplished at writing film scripts, but libretti are not his thing.

Lines are repeated endlessly, such as ‘Where are my shoes?’, which the elderly, Alzheimer’s-stricken version of Griffith intones ad nauseam. There are few attempts to blend clunky words with the score and rarely a defining musical high point at the end of a scene. This must be a miserable opera for its singers.

What there is of a narrative plot is shallow. The homosexual relationship at the root of Griffith’s psychodrama is focused on a single fling with a Man in Bar in Act One. Is there no more to Griffith’s sexual ambiguity than that?

The bit part of Kathy Hagan, who runs the gay bar that proves Griffith’s undoing, is more substantial than that of the lover. That is, perhaps, unsurprising, as Kathy was sung wondrously by mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe.

Plot threads with huge potential – the grasping mother Emelda Griffith, who has abandoned seven children but takes advantage of Griffith’s fortune; corrupt manager Howie Albert who feeds off Griffith; the marriage to Sadie Donastorg, which comes almost out of the blue – simply dwindle. These are characters aching for development.

A world-weary tuxedoed ringside announcer, who opens each scene with a mock preview of the action ‘In the left corner …’ does offer some ad lib comic relief.

Opera audiences will not be rebuilt on such shaky foundations. Rather than pull Champion out of retirement after last season’s success of Fire, the Met should have looked elsewhere.

First operas are not always a howling success. When did you last encounter Mozart’s Mitridate, Verdi’s Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, or Puccini’s Edgar, other than on a CD, or more likely a shellac 78? It would have been savvy to ask Blanchard to write something new.

Looking out of the window of the Lincoln Center during the interval, I glimpsed the familiar Juilliard School, across the pale grey concrete courtyard, home to some of the sharpest young musical talent on the planet. Mostly about to be underemployed. In that talent lies more fertile ground for opera’s future.

It is extraordinary that the Juilliard’s Composition class offers chamber music and orchestral classes, but no opera. The Met runs its hugely successful Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, creating a massive reservoir of talented singers, but has no program for young composers. Start a Lindemann composition category, work in cooperation with the Juilliard neighbours and let a new generation give voice.

The ‘safe’ option, relying on Broadway composers morphing successfully into opera, is simply not working. Maybe the new kids on the block will come up with something fresh. Mozart was the new kid on the block, once.

Champion is at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until 13 May.


Gerald Malone