More Terence Blanchard coming to Met Opera after success of 'Fire'

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More Terence Blanchard coming to Met Opera after success of 'Fire'
The composer Terence Blanchard at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan, Sept. 8, 2021. Following the critical and box office success of Blanchard’s milestone “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in the 2021 Met season, the opera has announced plans to stage his earlier work “Champion” in 2023. Wayne Lawrence/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- Following the critical and box office success this fall of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the first work by a Black composer to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera, the company announced Tuesday that it would stage his earlier opera, “Champion,” next season.

Typically, opera seasons are planned five years or more in advance, in a global game of Tetris with artists’ schedules. But the Met moved uncharacteristically quickly to follow “Fire” by bringing “Champion” to its stage in April 2023; Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said the production was coming together “on the turn of a dime.”

“Part of the Met’s future sustainability is predicated on our ability to make changes,” he added. “We want opera to be present in the world in which we live.”

Blanchard welcomed the news, encouraged by his experience of bringing “Fire” to the Met stage.

“Going through the process with that level of talent — it’s a serious drug, dude,” he said in an interview. “To experience that one time only makes you want to experience it again.”

A so-called opera in jazz, “Champion” premiered in 2013 at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in a production by James Robinson that will travel to New York. (That company also premiered “Fire” in 2019, and Robinson later directed it with Camille A. Brown at the Met.) It is based on the life of closeted gay boxer Emile Griffith, who was taunted with homophobic slurs by opponent Benny Paret before a 1962 title match that led to Paret’s death.

“I killed a man and the world forgives me,” goes a line in Michael Cristofer’s libretto. “I love a man and the world wants to kill me.”

“Emile Griffith never wanted to be a world champion fighter,” Cristofer, a Tony Award-winning playwright, said in a statement. “He wanted to play baseball. He wanted to make hats. And most of all, he wanted to sing. Bringing his story of forgiveness and redemption to the Met, to have it sung from this great stage, would have made him very, very happy.”

The work depicts Griffith at different stages of his life. At the Met, his younger self will be sung by Ryan Speedo Green, a standout in “Fire” and other productions this fall, while Eric Owens will portray him as an older man. The cast will also include soprano Latonia Moore, another “Fire” star, as Griffith’s mother, with the role revised to fit her voice type. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director who also led “Fire,” will conduct.

“Fire” was by many measures a triumph for the Met. It was warmly received by critics and sold out its final four performances. Blanchard has already been asked to write a new opera for the company, but in the meantime, Gelb said, the fast-tracked production of “Champion” was conceived in “the afterglow of the success of ‘Fire.’”

Between the St. Louis and New York runs, Blanchard revised “Fire” and continued to tweak it during rehearsals as he learned the idiosyncrasies of the enormous Met auditorium’s sound. He plans to do the same for “Champion,” which was his first opera — “a lot of shooting in the dark,” he said, adding that he has learned much more about writing for voice since then and wants to revisit the score with a post-“Fire” mind. Cristofer’s libretto and Robinson’s productions will also undergo changes.

“The story itself has more drama than ‘Fire,’” Blanchard said. “I anticipate it to be a very dramatic production, but we want to cut some scenes down, and I want to go in and look for where I can add chorus.”

Blanchard is particularly looking forward to being reunited with Nézet-Séguin.

“Man, he gets it,” he said of the conductor. “He’s smart, and he’s passionate about it.”

With “Champion” and “Fire,” the Met is set to present company premieres of operas by Black composers in three consecutive seasons. (Anthony Davis’ 1986 “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” is planned for fall 2023.) Asked what that presaged for the coming years, Gelb said, “It’s the way of the future.”

Blanchard said this streak, after nearly 140 years of neglecting Black composers, was “a major shift.” But, he added, “it’s not just about African Americans.”

“It’s people from all walks of life,” he said. “We have to see how all that plays out, but I don’t want to be a token. I wanted ‘Fire’ to be the production that opened up the doors for everybody. And the talent is out there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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