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Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera: 'Champion' tells the tragic tale of boxer Emile Griffith

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Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera: 'Champion' tells the tragic tale of boxer Emile Griffith
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Katharina Rabillon
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Musica is granted backstage access at New York's Metropolitan Opera for the rehearsals of 'Champion,' the modern masterpiece that reflects the Met’s vision for the future.

The groundbreaking opera 'Champion,' shown for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was the first composed by the famous Jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard

In part two of our journey with Champion's cast and crew, Musica follows the exciting rehearsal process as it builds up to the opening night, taking a look behind the scenes and finding out what it takes to stage a modern masterpiece.

'Controlled chaos': Preparing for the premiere

The final countdown has begun. Two weeks to go until the premiere of 'Champion: An Opera In Jazz.'

The orchestra is rehearsing but what you see is only the tip of the iceberg. The Metropolitan Opera is like a huge ocean liner that never stops.

"We literally have a stage that is in 24-hour use because after this morning we had a rehearsal for Champion. Tonight we have a performance of Rosenkavalier. Overnight a night gang will be transforming the scenery back to Champion so we can resume rehearsing it tomorrow morning," explained Peter Gelb, the General Manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera.

When opera fans and fanatics come and see the show, they're going to experience and see things they don't normally see
Terence Blanchard
Composer

"It's non-stop and that's the way we like it. It's controlled chaos," Gelb told Musica.

The famous jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard made history in 2021 as the first Black composer to have his work shown at the Metropolitan Opera.

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Terence Blanchard, Composer, Jazz trumpeterEuronews

"Being here is surreal for me. I'm a jazz musician. That’s not my daily grind," he explained. "This place has so much history in it. And you can feel it in the walls. There are so many great people working here who have been here for years who know what they're doing."

Many artisans and artists are working towards one goal: to stage the compelling drama of Emile Griffith – the true story of one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Ryan Speedo Green is a bass-baritone who stars as Emile Griffith in the production. 

"I play the Emile who is still innocent with big dreams and big hopes," he revealed.

"In the process of the opera, you see those hopes become less hope and more what reality is. And him having to not only cope with the fact that he is sexually not what he originally thought he was, and in getting to a point where he realises that the society does not accept who he is and it crushes him."

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Ryan Speedo Green, Bass-baritone, "Emile Griffith" in Champion (left) with Latonia Moore, Soprano, "Emile Griffith's mother" in Champion (right)Euronews

Emile Griffith came to New York in the 1950s. His boxing career skyrocketed and he became a world welterweight champion.

But he struggled with his bisexuality in a masculine sport. In 1962 his opponent Benny “Kid” Paret whispers homophobic slurs to him. Emile Griffith knocks him into a coma and he dies shortly after. He was haunted by guilt for the rest of his life.

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Boxing ring scene from 'Champion,'Euronews

Movement and music intertwine

To set this gripping story to music, the composer fuses different musical genres – from gospel, and calypso, to traditional opera, samba, and jazz styles.

Improvisation is a key element in this opera.

"I think the challenge here is something that is coming out of the fact that we're not used to having a jazz quartet in the pit, but we have this drum set in a way, once you start the number, the drummer becomes kind of the conductor," said conductor, Kensho Watanabe.

"There is this wonderful interaction that I get to have with the drummer to kind of negotiate a little bit on tempos," he added.

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Kensho Watanabe, ConductorEuronews

“Being a jazz musician, I've never played the same tune the same way. That's just not what we do," said composer Terence Blanchard.

"So I allow them a lot of freedom because it's about expressing yourself, and it's about finding that vibration that kind of best tells the story at that moment."

Huge dance numbers add a special flavour to this groundbreaking opera. But it poses another challenge for the cast who are put to the test in a movement class.

"I was really excited to work with the actors on their different movements, and I was really inspired by the rhythm that Terence composed," admitted choreographer, Camille A. Brown.

"I wanted to do something that incorporated boxing moves and warmups but had a rhythm to it. So we had push-ups in there, we had jabs, so a little bit of everything."

"I'm realising that I'm not only an opera singer, but I have the heart of a dancer," Ryan Speedo Green told Musica. "I feel like I'm really treading new ground as a performer, getting in my body. This show, specifically 'Champion,' is showcasing that we as opera singers have more than just voices."

Poster for the Metropolitan Opera's production of 'Champion', New York
Poster for the Metropolitan Opera's production of 'Champion', New YorkPoster for the Metropolitan Opera's production of 'Champion', New York

Stage management: The art of keeping a cool head

While rehearsals are in full swing, the final touches on the costumes are made. But tensions are rising and everything happens under the watchful eye of the stage managers who coordinate a huge group of people.

"You need to be calm. You need to be able to handle crises and keep everybody else calm," said Christy Langan, who alongside her colleague Yasmine Kiss, works as a stage manager. 

"Yasmine is out there calling all the rail cues, everything that flies, the deck cues, the automation, everything that moves. And for the artistic process, she's out with the director in the house."

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Christy Langan (left), Yasmine Kiss (right), Stage ManagersEuronews

"I'm on stage communicating back with her and I'm making sure I get all the people there, all the costume changes, all the props are set. So between the two of us, we manage everything."

"For me, the biggest challenge is [that] it's [a] brand new opera. And we have a living composer who is sitting two seats away from me in the house," fellow stage manager Yasmin Kiss told Musica.

"So musically, it requires a little more effort to get to know the piece and understand the musical language, because modern musical language can be very different from doing a historical Mozart or anything like that."

Changing the face of opera

Finally, it’s opening night, and the magic happens. The curtain rises for almost 4,000 people to see this new production of 'Champion.'

This masterpiece is also part of the Met’s vision for the future. The company is trying to change the face of opera with accessible new works and stories people can relate to.

"The goal is to bring people into the room, so they can experience opera," composer Terence Blanchard explained.

"There was a gentleman [who] said to me, 'man, if this is opera, I'll come.' And that blew me away because basically, he's telling me, I saw myself on the stage. I saw a story that I knew about, something I can relate to my life."

"We could certainly make efforts to make opera more relatable and more relevant for a broader and younger audience and we have to," said Peter Gelb.

"And it’s also why we are going to be presenting over the next five seasons 17 Met premieres, which is an unparalleled number of new work, probably in the entire history of the Metropolitan Opera in all of its 140 years."

"With this opera Champion, I have the opportunity to break the preconceptions of opera-goers. When opera fans and fanatics come and see the show, they're going to experience and see things they don't normally see," Ryan Speedo Green concluded.

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