Music, excitement, and the gay boxer
One Cheer for “Champion” at the Metropolitan Opera
“Football Cheers Greet Rachmaninov at Orchestra Hall” said the Chicago American in January 1932. The Russian composer had performed his Third Piano Concerto (1909), one of the most difficult works in the repertory. Another Chicago paper called his performance “the most exciting event in the history of Orchestra Hall.” After the last note “the audience rose and shouted its approval,” cheering as they would have cheered two miles away at Soldier Field, the home of Chicago football since 1924.
Sports and classical music don’t usually mix, although in the 1890s they came together at the old home of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which was a venue for boxing and wrestling as well as opera. Boxing and music came together at the new Met recently, when the jazz opera Champion enjoyed a successful run at Lincoln Center.
Written by Terrence Blanchard, the opera tells the story of the bi-sexual boxer Emile Griffith (see my March 8 post). Two established singers shared the title role, tenor Ryan Speedo Green (named after the swimwear brand) as the young boxer (below), and bass Eric Owens portraying Griffith in his last years. They sang and acted with understated power, backed up by an impressive supporting cast.
I thought of Champion a few weeks ago, when Russian pianist Danil Trifonov and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the Rachmaninov Third at Orchestra Hall. At the end, true to the 1932 precedent, the audience leaped to its feet with excited cheers that went on and on.
Applause after the Met’s Champion was also enthusiastic (I saw the April 29 performance, which was broadcast live to movie theaters). But that excitement had little to do with the music and a lot to do with novelty and politics.
Excitement at the CSO
What is it, exactly, that rouses a classical music audience to football-stadium enthusiasm? It might seem obvious—great music. But it takes a certain kind of great music. We assume that the reaction expresses aesthetic appreciation of extraordinary beauty and artistry, and of course that is true. However, beautiful music, very well played, is ordinarily met with hearty applause, not with frenzied excitement. Frenzied excitement means that something more than art appreciation is involved.
Most people become excited when music makes something happen in their heads, not psychologically but physically. The brain processes music the way it processes the rewards of food and alcohol. Taste your favorite food and the brain is flooded with a rewarding sensation. Hear music you love, and you feel rewarded. Some music—most music, perhaps—is merely gratifying and pleasing. Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is both, but it is also deeply exciting.
Another thrilling example is the last movement of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, called The Resurrection (1895); this movement lasts over 30 minutes, one-third the length of the entire work. The final three minutes, which are powered by a large chorus, an organ, and a full orchestra, the music climbs and climbs. Bells sound, and then, unexpectedly, there are two pauses. After the last words are sung, the orchestra plays for another minute. When silence falls, many in the audience find themselves in tears. Then, invariably, they jump up and cheer like crazy.
This effect is not accidental. Nor is it a response to beauty pure and simple. Mahler wrote of this movement: "The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don't know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it” (Wiki entry on the symphony).
Mahler’s music, like Rachmaninov’s, works on and in the listener’s brain. The auditory circuits respond to changes in tempo, intensity, and volume. With an extended work, such as the Rachmaninov Third, which lasts about 45 minutes, this stimulation is prolonged. Exquisitely delicate for a few seconds, the music is suddenly thunderous; the pace seems steady, then unpredictable. The concerto continually pushes into new territory, with changes in key and tempo. You probably are not aware of it, but as you take it in, your auditory circuits are buzzing. Part of the reason people leap to their feet is relief that the “increasing tension” has come to an end. They feel released.
Boxing at the Met
At the end of Champion, you do not need to relax or exhale. You may find yourself sad about the pain of Griffith’s life and the touching scenes of the old man lost in dementia. But you will probably be entirely unaware of the music, which has passed through the auditory circuits without exciting them, or you.
Champion resembles Blanchard’s previous jazz opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened the Met’s season last year. I saw Fire at Chicago’s Lyric Opera and thought it memorable only because of some superb dance sequences. Champion is better, telling Griffith’s story. He is one of the few boxers to injure an opponent fatally. Benny Paret had mocked Griffith as a “faggot” (maricon) before a fight, and in that fight Griffith beat him into a coma that resulted in Paret’s death.
Even the reviewer for that woke bastion, the New York Times, could not muster enthusiasm for Blanchard’s music. Zachary Woolfe describes Champion and Fire as “more blandly jazzy than they are vivid jazz” (April 11, 2023). In both works, he says, “the orchestra tends to be attractively functional — a carpet of gently bluesy repeating riffs — rather than an expressive character in its own right.” Woolfe also writes that “the sonic landscape of ‘Champion’ often feels like lush film-style underscoring, which means that the music labors to press forward and scenes linger too long, giving the piece a feeling of stagnancy, of slowly snapping its finger in place.”
The creators did produce some excitement. The opening number in Champion is a raucous street festival at Griffith’s home, the Virgin Islands, with dozens of dancers leaping about. Later, in New York, we see Emile in a gym and again dance tells the story. Men in boxing gear rush on stage, pair off, and do the boxer’s bounce, taking short jumps in and out on the balls of their feet; they also throw a few uppercuts. Behind them, other boxers do jumping jacks and smack their gloves together over their heads. The scene is a wonderful mix of finesse and power, just what boxing needs to be. The dancers make boxing look like fun, like something we might want to do ourselves. My boxing coach loved this move. I showed him a clip of the dancers in rehearsal (YouTube) and he says I seem to have improved my footwork as a result of watching how the dancers made their moves. Not every opera pays off in the ring!
There is too little of that excitement in Champion. The problem is the libretto by Michael Cristofer. Weak and repetitious, it ignores crucial evidence of drama and tension in the boxer’s life.
For example, we don’t know why Griffith wants to fight. It seems that boxing was not his idea. According to Ron Ross, the boxer’s only biographer, Griffith was discovered in a hat factory, working in the shipping department, where his broad shoulders drew the attention of a manager with some boxing contacts (Nine . . . Ten . . . and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith, p. 4). Ross interviewed Griffith in the boxer’s old age but admits to having "nurtured and influenced" the boxer’s memories. Ross writes the first page of the first chapter in Griffith’s voice, entirely fictionalized. The book bends the boxer’s life to the writer’s needs; the same is true of the opera’s libretto.
The opera does not explore Griffith’s extended reaction to Paret’s death. We do not learn that these men had a bad history. Griffith and Paret fought three times in 1961 and 1962. In their second fight, Paret took the welterweight title from Griffith. Paret had called Griffith a “faggot” more than once. His animosity was not spontaneous, and, crucially, neither was Griffith’s.
The text fails to establish conflicts inside the main character or to examine his decline after Paret died. The opera’s Griffith, young or old, seems to be a man to whom things happen, not a man who chooses to do things. Thus he cannot, by definition, be seen as a hero. Griffith could not shape his fate: he lacked of self-control. We see this in his unmanly failure to restrain himself in the ring. Even after he had beaten Paret into an unconscious lump, Griffith continued to pound him. Griffith is quoted in Ross’s book as saying that he did not hate the man Paret, meaning, surely, that Griffith was beating the man because of what the man stood for. This harsh retribution for homophobia might, by bolder creators than the men behind Champion, be seen as a kind of reverse hate crime, a gay man choosing to fight back. That’s real drama.
Champion makes light of Griffith’s lack of seriousness, playing it as camp. The boxer undercut his own masculinity, and not only with his fascination with women’s hats. (He once made a hat for an opponent’s wife and presented it to her—that’s something else besides charming.) Ross includes a picture of the boxer’s mother carrying him around his dressing room before a fight. This image could not have helped anybody see Griffith as a serious man or respect him as a dangerous boxer. The libretto sees no menace in Griffith’s unserious behavior, but plainly the danger was there.
The opera also ignores Griffith’s strengths, including his faith. A year after Paret’s death Griffith wrote, “I know what it is to die—and to be reborn again.” That's the surprising first sentence of an article he published in Boxing and Wrestling (reviewed at my website). Griffith is referring to two events. The first is his loss of the welterweight crown to Paret in 1961, an event that demolished Griffith's boyhood dream of being an athletic champion. The second event was the fatal fight in 1962. Of that event, Griffith writes, “I won back my title by knocking out Paret, but I lost virtually everything I had ever gained in life.” Not quite. Paret really did lose everything. Griffith went on to retake the title, but he felt that he had entered a world he could never “look in the face” again.
Paret’s death reshaped Griffith’s career (Paret on left, above, falling at the end of the fight). He fought 80 times after Paret died, but he acknowledged that he had changed. “I was never the same fighter after that. After that fight, I did enough to win. I would use my jab all the time. I never wanted to hurt the other guy,” said Griffith (quoted in an obituary that appeared in USA Today. He used his jab because, for most boxer’s, that’s a set-up punch; the cross is the power punch). “I would have quit, but I didn't know how to do anything else but fight.” Griffith had lost only three times in his 31 fights before Paret’s death. He then lost 24 of his next 80 fights; he went from losing one in 10 to losing or drawing one in four.
In Boxing and Wrestling Griffith emphasized the support he received from fans and boxers. The latter included Willie Toweel, whom Griffith had knocked out in 1960, and who also killed an opponent; and Sugar Ray Robinson, a high-flying champion who was a model for Griffith. Robinson fatally injured an opponent in 1947.
In his turn, Griffith inspired and supported other boxers. Ray Mancini fatally injured the Korean boxer Kim Duk Koo in 1982, twenty years after Griffith killed Paret. Two months after Kim’s death, Mancini resumed his workouts at the Times Square Gym. According to Mancini, “Emile came up to me and he says: ‘Welcome back.’ That’s all he said. I said to myself, ‘That's it. That does it for me’ (see The Good Son by Mark Kriegel, p. 160). Mancini went back to boxing, just as Griffith had. The boxers who encouraged Griffith knew him; they focused on his friendship and love of boxing, not on his sex life.
Champion also falsifies its key point about gay victimhood. In Ross’s book, Griffith says, “I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin" (p. xiv). No date or place is given for Griffith’s quote.
The opera rewrites this statement. “I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me,” the elder Griffith sings. What was an “unforgiveable” sexual sin on Griffith’s part now becomes a murderous sin he imputes to others. Blanchard assumed that Griffith himself was the source of this statement; in program materials he refers to Griffith’s “autobiography.” Griffin did not write an autobiography, however, and Ross’s book remains the only biography published. Given Ross's loose use of sources, it is doubtful that the expression is the boxer’s own.
Griffith believed (so Ross suggests) that the world forgave him for Paret’s death, but not for his homosexuality. That was not true. Griffith discusses the hate mail he received after Paret's death. According to Ross, “Emile couldn't walk down the street without being threatened or cursed at.” Paret was a hero to what Ross calls “Cuban/Latin” fans, and they were not the only ones who were disgusted at Griffith’s performance in the fatal fight (see p. 66, for example). This had nothing to do with Griffith’s sexuality and everything to do with his lack of discipline. Also responsible is the referee who let the terrible beating take place and who never refereed another fight.
The opera ignores Griffith’s lack of self-control and patronizes the black victim of homophobia. The facts of the boxer’s life tell a compelling and complex story that the opera’s libretto leaves untold. Griffith was defiantly frivolous. Yet he was capable of deadly revenge and anger. There are a lot of angry boxers in the world, at all levels. Few of them have killed an opponent.
The opera’s version of the quote about loving and killing a man indicts those who think that murder is preferable to homosexual love. If Griffith did indeed love a man, who was it? The opera puts forth no candidates. No love between the boxer and another man is explored or even suggested.
One reason is that the script speaks in stereotypes and generalities. Loving one man would complicate the plot. Loving “a man” does not. Unlike other elements of the opera, a boxer’s personal relationships are not placards that can be flashed to the audience like the number signs paraded around the ring during some boxing matches.
The opera’s victim-focused narrative is simplistic and the music is bland. Why then the enthusiastic applause? If you’re going to stand up and cheer after Champion, it’s because you’ve seen an opera by a black composer about a black boxer who was also gay. You approve of the topic and that is all you need. Tickets are expensive, the Met is breaking new ground, and you’re supportive. Composers like Rachmaninov and Mahler wanted to stimulate, excite, even provoke their audiences. Blanchard and his collaborators merely want to pat their audience on the back.
The afternoon’s one source of amusement was the costume worn by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (above), who conducted. He came out in a silky black and white boxer’s robe, a get-up made for him by the Met’s costume department. Before the start of act two he waved to his adoring fans, sporting boxing gloves that concealed the black nail polish we saw during his intermission interview (a few weeks earlier he conducted Lohengrin with nails painted light pink; he also changed sweatshirts for each act).
The conductor’s stunt was Champion in a nutshell, boxing as an excuse to feel bad for boxers and good for ourselves. Champion has nothing to say about boxing, which serves as window-dressing for routine pieties about race and gay life. The audience was pleased, but the audience was also cheated. Most left the Met knowing not much more about Griffith’s life— or about boxing—than they knew the day before. An opportunity to imagine the union of boxing, jazz, race, and gay love—a marriage made in heaven, if you ask me—came to little in a work that timidly dumbed down each of its volatile elements.